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Gratitude in the Midst of Conflict

Being grateful has positive effects on physical and mental health.

We have just participated in a celebration of Thanksgiving. This holiday was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. This was an intense period of strife and division for our country. Yet, Lincoln deemed this an appropriate time to set aside a national day of thanksgiving for the many blessings he observed in our country. It seems appropriate to me to reflect on gratitude and thanksgiving at this present moment in our country as well.

A friend of mine has a rule of life: “What you focus on grows.” This may explain why gratitude can boost well-being. In fact, making a “gratitude list” can be an effective intervention for clients. There has been systematic research on the effects of gratitude. One recent study found that gratitude protected participants against depression and physical symptoms such as blood pressure, headaches, and stomach upset when they experienced stressful life events (Deichert, Chicken, & Hodgman, 2019). Many have also anecdotally reported the positive effect gratitude has on mood. One therapist I know asked a client to write three things they are grateful for every day for a month without repeating any. Another asked a grieving mother to make a list of all the bad things, then make a list of an equal number of good things. Clients reported improved mood in both of these instances.

People in happy marriages tend to be healthier and live longer than single people or people in unhappy marriages. One contributing factor may be gratitude. It turns out that gratitude toward our partners strengthens our relationships. This appears to be impacted by oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurohormone that is found in many species. It plays an important role in reproductive systems, as well as attachment, stress, and emotionality.

There is a relationship between oxytocin and gratitude that appears to occur in both directions: expressions of gratitude towards one’s partner as well as perception that their partner is responsive to their gratitude is associated with higher levels of a marker for oxytocin release (Algoe & Way, 2014). These researchers looked at a gene that is important in the secretion of oxytocin. Participants were given an opportunity to express gratitude to their partner in the researchers’ lab and provided nightly self-reports of gratitude expressed toward their partner. Almost all of the measures of relationship satisfaction and gratitude were significantly related to the marker of oxytocin release.

Another study explored the impact of giving people daily doses of oxytocin for 10 days on measures of gratitude (Barraza et al., 2013). Older people in a residential facility participated in this study. Those who received oxytocin showed an increase in dispositional gratitude, which suggests an enduring personality trait, compared to those who received placebo. This study was limited to an older population (average age was 80), and it would be helpful to see it repeated with different age groups to test its generalizability. But this study and the preceding one suggest that gratitude’s effect on relationships may be grounded in its link to oxytocin, which is important for forming and maintaining social bonds.

Oxytocin is involved in the regulation of our physiological responses to stressors. We know, for example, that the presence of a loved one (parent or partner) buffers the effect of stressors on cortisol release, an important indicator of physiological stress. It is not surprising, then, that positive relationships contribute to our physical and mental health. Remembering what we have to be grateful for and expressing that gratefulness to the important people in our lives is life-affirming and enhances our physical and mental health. This is particularly so during times of stress.

References

Algoe, S. B., & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 9(12), 1855-1861. doi:10.1093/scan/nst182

Barraza, J. A., Grewal, N. S., Ropacki, S., Perez, P., Gonzalez, A., & Zak, P. J. (2013). Effects of a 10-day oxytocin trial in older adults on health and well-being. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol, 21(2), 85-92. doi:10.1037/a0031581

Deichert, N. T., Chicken, M. P., & Hodgman, L. (2019). Appreciation of others buffers the associations of stressful life events with depressive and physical symptoms. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 20(4), 1071-1088. doi:10.1007/s10902-018-9988-9

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