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Published on September 21, 2015

Being grateful is good for your healthBeing grateful is good for your health

We started a “gratitude jar” at my house last spring. Children love it. They relish the simple joy of writing one thing they’re grateful for and inserting it into the pot, knowing that we’ll read them aloud at the end of the year.

Now it turns out that acknowledging what we’re grateful for – from the most trifling things to the seriously profound – is actually good for your body, as well as your emotional and mental health. So if you haven’t acknowledged gratefulness lately for something, today – National Gratitude Day – is an excellent time to refresh your thinking and express appreciation for the good things in your life.

Pat Durgin, an occupational therapist who oversees the Partial Hospital Program for psychiatric patients at the Centers for Behavioral Health at Cape Cod Healthcare, is a firm believer in the tremendous health benefits of gratitude.

“We use gratitude as part of our check-in every morning in our Partial Hospital Program,” Durgin says. When new participants arrive, they usually respond to the question with something like “the program” or “having something to eat.” But since their answers have to be different every day, “they have to refine their list more and more,” Durgin says.

And that’s when it starts getting interesting.

“We have patients who may be homeless, sitting beside other patients with ample resources,” Durgin says. “Some people may express gratefulness for a new boat; others are grateful simply to feel the sun on their face, or that they were able to have a hot shower.

“As they refine their lists, it creates a sense of empathy. It can be so far-reaching in so many ways.” Eventually, she says, “they realize they’re grateful for each other.”

A simple, sincere expression of thankfulness lightens moods and spreads joy. But there are profound physical effects of establishing a daily acknowledgement of appreciation of your life. It lowers blood pressure, creates a stronger immune system and better sleep, and encourages better health habits.

Psychological effects include experiencing more joy, pleasure, optimism and greater levels of positive emotions. The results were recorded by Robert Emmons, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who has made a career in the study of gratitude.

As Cape Cod Healthcare’s chief development officer, Kevin M. Ralph sees the effects of heart-stirring gratefulness every day in his work. Thankful patients happily share their stories with Ralph (and often express it through philanthropy).

“We’re treating people in some of the most traumatic times of their lives,” Ralph says. “When people give back, you can see the pride on their faces. It’s a benefit for us, for obvious reasons. If people have such good feelings that they give back, it makes the donors feel good, it makes our doctors feel good. Ultimately we’ll be able to provide better services for those who follow them.”

So it seems that gratefulness is multiplied in a synergy that creates a deep well of goodness, a combined effect that is much greater than the sum of the separate acts.

Hmm. Now that I think of it, maybe our gratitude jar needs a fresh refilling.