As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

With all the violence, pollution and the crazy things some people do, it would be easy to despair and turn into a grouchy old man without being either elderly or male. There’s certainly no shortage of justification for disappointment and cynicism.

But consider this: Negative attitudes are not just bad for you, they are bad for your health. Whereas gratitude, as it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. So the more time you spend in seeing the world as a place of madness and frustration, the more you’re going to get a world that is, well, more mad and more frustrating. But if you can find any authentic reason to give thanks, anything that is going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you’re going to be better off.

Does this mean to live in a state of constant denial and put your head in the sand? Of course not. Gratitude works when you’re grateful for something real. Feeling euphoric and spending money like you just won the lottery when you didn’t is probably going to empty you bank account real quick. But what are you actually grateful for? It’s a question that could change your life.

Research on gratitude

In one of his first studies on gratitude, conducted with colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, Emmons randomly assigned participants one of three tasks. Some were encouraged to feel gratitude indirectly, others to be indirectly negative and complaining, and a third group to be neutral.

Every week, participants kept a short journal. They briefly described either five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, or the opposite, five daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them. The neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told to accentuate the positive or negative. The results of this study at the end of 10 weeks:

  • Participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions — a full 25 percent happier.
  • They reported fewer health complaints and even spent more time exercising than control participants.
  • They had fewer symptoms of physical illness than the other two groups.
  • The gratitude group exercised 1.5 hours more than the hassled group.

In a second study by Emmons, people were asked to write with daily frequency about things for which they were grateful or when they experienced gratitude. There was evidence that the daily intervention led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly practice in the first study. The results showed another benefit:

  • Participants in the gratitude condition also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude condition increased “pro-social” motivation.

A third study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio disease (PPS).

  • Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude condition reported more hours of sleep each night, spending less time awake before falling asleep, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening.
  • The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control condition.

The participants weren’t the only ones believing life was better. According to the researchers, “Spouses of the participants in the gratitude condition reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control condition.”

There’s an old saying that if you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness. It turns out this isn’t just a cute expression. Several studies have shown depression to be strongly inversely related to gratitude. The more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. The more depressed, the less likely one is to feel thankful for life. One researcher, Philip Watkins, clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls.

One reason may be that people who are grateful tend to show a positive recall bias (conjuring up many more pleasant memories than unpleasant ones) when asked about past life events, just as depressed individuals show a negative recall bias when asked about past life events. Watkins suggests that gratitude may help alleviate depression for three other reasons:

  • Gratitude might increase a person’s potential for enjoyment of benefits and “the benevolence of the event.”
  • A grateful attitude may provide useful coping skills for dealing with losses and other stressful events, such as appreciating important things that we have previously taken for granted.
  • A grateful approach to life can increase one’s focus on their benefits in life.

Marriage: the 5 to 1 ratio

Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington has been researching marriages for two decades. The bottom line of all that research, he concludes, is that unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater), it is likely the marriage will end.

With 90 percent accuracy, Gottman can predict, often after only three minutes of observation, which marriages are likely to flourish and which will probably flounder. The formula is that for every negative expression (a complaint, frown, put-down, expression of anger) there needs to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter).

So, what’s the best way to create a positivity ratio? No surprises here. Gottman suggests practicing gratitude in marriage and having a goal of counting at least five blessings for every one complaint.

Optimism and longevity

Can gratitude really help you live longer? Ample evidence suggests that hopelessness and despair can adversely impact the endocrine and immune systems, even hastening death. Conversely, being an optimist may help reduce your risk of dying from heart attack and other causes. A recent study at Mayo clinic found evidence suggesting that pessimists live shorter lives than optimists. People who scored high on optimism (measured on personality tests 30 years before) had a 50 percent lower risk of premature death than those who tested out as being more pessimistic.

A Dutch study reported that “optimistic” elderly men and women had a 55 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 23 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death than pessimists.

One of the most direct links between gratitude and optimism is shown in the “Nun Study” by David Snowdon, professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Kentucky Medical School. In his now-famous research, Snowdon found “the more positive emotions expressed in the life stories of these nuns (contentment, gratitude/thankfulness, happiness, hope and love), the more likely they were to still be alive six decades later.

Simple steps to a healthier life

1) Keep a daily journal of five things you are thankful for. This works well first thing in the morning, or just before you go to bed.

2) Make it a practice to tell your child, spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.

3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself.

4) Join a community of people who practice Gratitude and Appreciation. I found this one on Facebook.

5) Watch your language. Negative talk undermines the gratitude practice.

When we stop making all those things that we don’t like or frustrate us, bigger, by way of our focus and instead cultivate an attitude of gratitude, things don’t just look better, they actually get better.  So by consciously starting your day focused on gratitude and appreciation you will not only feel good and a bless the people around you, you will rewire the neural networks in your brain.