A new psychological study finds that recognizing the positive aspects of life results in improved mental and physical health among patients with asymptomatic heart failure.
“We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” said lead author Paul J. Mills, Ph.D.
In the study, gratitude was defined as part of a wider outlook on life that involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. This perspective can be attributed to an external source (e.g., a pet), another person or a non-human (e.g., God).
Gratitude is also commonly an aspect of spirituality, said Mills. Although research has shown that people who considered themselves more spiritual have greater overall well-being, including physical health, research combining spirituality and gratitude has not been performed.
In the new study, Mills and his colleagues examined the role of both spirituality and gratitude on potential health markers in patients.
The study has been published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice.
Researcher followed 186 men and women who had been diagnosed with asymptomatic (Stage B) heart failure for at least three months. Stage B consists of patients who have developed structural heart disease (e.g., have had a heart attack that damaged the heart) but do not show symptoms of heart failure (e.g., shortness of breath or fatigue).
This stage is an important therapeutic window for halting disease progression and improving quality of life since Stage B patients are at high risk of progressing to symptomatic (Stage C) heart failure, where risk of death is five times higher, according to Mills.
Using standard psychological tests, the researchers obtained scores for gratitude and spiritual well-being. They then compared those scores with the patients’ scores for depressive symptom severity, sleep quality, fatigue, self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to deal with a situation), and inflammatory markers.
They found higher gratitude scores were associated with better mood, higher quality sleep, more confidence in self-care, and less inflammation. Discovering the relationship between gratitude and inflammation is especially important as inflammation can often worsen heart failure.
What surprised the researchers about the findings, though, was that gratitude fully or partially accounted for the beneficial effects of spiritual well-being.
“We found that spiritual well-being was associated with better mood and sleep, but it was the gratitude aspect of spirituality that accounted for those effects, not spirituality per se,” said Mills.
To further test their findings, the researchers asked some of the patients to write down three things for which they were thankful most days of the week for eight weeks. Both groups continued to receive regular clinical care during that time.
“We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” said Mills.
“It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health.”