Last year, I baked brownies for strangers to whom I was grateful. They thanked me for my gesture. And that was it—an exchange so simple, you’ll be surprised at the complexity of its rewards.
It started when I called 911 after finding my partner unconscious on the floor. Within minutes, a police cruiser arrived, followed by an ambulance filled with first responders who whisked my partner to the emergency room, where he received the critical care he needed.
A week later, I wrote thank-you notes and dropped them off at the police station and the firehouse with batches of still-warm brownies. After the firefighters thanked me for delivering the gifts, I drove away feeling both light and happy.
That natural high is increasingly understood to be a benefit of gratitude. I felt good both because of my good deed and because I’d been touched by selfless people who expected nothing in return. Research confirms that performing acts of kindness and sharing thankful thoughts have many positive effects on mood and health. People who express gratitude lower their blood pressure, get better quality sleep, improve their relationships, decrease their depression levels, and are less affected by pain. Says Willibald Ruch, a psychology professor at the University of Zurich who researches how factors like gratitude and humor affect perception, “Gratitude is among the top five predictors of happiness.”
The Ticket to a Bigger Life
When you feel thankful for things you’ve received or something that’s happened, that’s gratitude. You never feel it in a vacuum; you are clear who or what is responsible, whether that’s a loved one, a stranger, or a higher power. “Gratitude is how you relate to others,” Ruch says, “when you see yourself in connection with things larger than yourself.” He and other researchers believe this understanding of our reliance on others is becoming more difficult today. “With commercial and social media, everything makes the younger generation feel that they are the center of the universe,” says Tamiko Zablith, founder of the London-based etiquette consulting firm Minding Manners. “If it’s all about them, why thank others?”
If true, this would be a disturbing health trend, because thanking others in heartfelt ways—or, even better, helping them—carries long-lasting effects. Canadian researchers found that people who wrote thank-you letters or performed good deeds for a six-week period decreased their pain, upped their energy, accomplished more every day, and improved their mental health for up to six months.
And you can reap these benefits at any age. Swedish researchers have found that people ages 77 to 90 who choose to be thankful are less likely to dwell on their chances of growing frail. “When they can’t change something, they choose gratitude and focus on what’s good: walking on their own legs, still being alive, and living by themselves,” says study author Helena Hörder, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
Gratitude is contagious, as well: Those who are helped are more likely to pay kindness forward. One study found that when someone is thanked, it more than doubles his or her chances of being helpful again, likely because he or she enjoys feeling socially valued. Zablith likes the reaction she gets when she rewards a stranger who holds the door open for her at Starbucks with his rightful place in line in front of her. “The look on his face is shock,” Zablith says. “He’ll be nicer to the cashier, the next person he sees at work. There’s a trickle-down effect.”
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This give-and-take can also deepen intimacy. When your partner regularly expresses appreciation for you, you’re more likely to return the feeling and stay committed; in one study, expressions of gratitude made partners feel more responsible for one another’s well-being and more satisfied with the relationship.
When you share gratitude with those you feel grateful to, the benefits accumulate.
Train a Grateful Brain
If you aren’t particularly grateful now, you can learn to be. People who keep journals in which they write down three positive things that happen to them each day cultivate health-inducing thankfulness. At first, people may have difficulty recognizing the good things that occur, Ruch says. “But if every evening you write them down, you experience those things more intensively,” he says. “Gradually, your brain gets trained into a more appreciative mode.” When Ruch instructs patients to keep a gratitude journal, they often keep it up later, he says, on their own. “It becomes a book of nice memories.”
A gratitude journal carried Samuel Coster of St. Louis, Missouri, through a battle with lymphoma. “Gratitude training certainly came to my aid during the dark times,” Coster says. “Did I get cancer? Yep. Did I also get to hang out with my family way more, gain a greater appreciation for life, and get a few cool scars? Yep. And that’s the part I focus on.”
A Circle of Appreciation
Whenever you express gratefulness, you make yourself happier. But when you share it directly with the person you feel grateful to, the benefits accumulate. Researchers found that people who write thank-you notes to those they haven’t already properly thanked may improve interpersonal relationships for up to six months.
John Kralik of California experienced this firsthand. Divorced twice, he wasn’t as close with his children as he wanted to be, and his law practice wasn’t earning money despite the grueling hours he devoted to working. At a particularly discouraging point, he remembered his grandfather telling him decades earlier about the importance of gratitude. He decided to write 365 thank-you notes over 365 days, hoping for a positive change.
Immediately he noticed that his attitude and his fortunes improved. At the end of his thank-you note year, he wrote a memoir about his experience, A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. “I don’t need a scientific study to know that if you are grateful to people and if you learn how to accept gratitude well from other people, your life will be enriched,” Kralik says. “The first effects are that you realize you have a much better life than you thought.”