Practicing This Feeling Could Actually Help You Live Longer, Says a Neuroscientist
Making time to conjure this emotion can improve your physical, mental and spiritual health, helping you live a longer life...and a happier one.
Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, was famous for many things. One habit that cemented her in her people’s hearts was her practice of being grateful. Royal insiders have said the late queen expressed her gratitude often and sincerely, both verbally and in hundreds of documented handwritten thank-you cards—to everyone from palace chefs to heads of state, and even schoolchildren.
Interestingly, says Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist, and psychiatrist, that famous gratitude practice may have been one of the habits that helped Queen Elizabeth to live to be 96 years young before she passed in September 2022.
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Being grateful changes your brain
“People who make it a practice to be grateful, and regularly express that gratitude, have better health outcomes and generally live longer,” says Dr. Rabin. And they aren’t just adding years to their lives, but life to their years: grateful people are happier and experience greater well-being overall, with fMRI research showing that thinking about things one is grateful for lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as drugs and sex, he explains.
“We see changes in brain activity that are focused on the anterior insulate cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are involved in the emotional interpretation, memory and control, which in turn changes how we behave,” he explains. Gratitude, he says, also increases neural connections and releases hormones associated with happiness.
Basically, grateful people have happier, more resilient brains.
How exactly gratitude increases longevity isn’t clear, as there are a lot of other variables that are involved in determining a person’s lifespan, says Dr. Rabin. What we do know, according to current research, is based on the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of being grateful.
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The physical benefits of gratitude
And while it’s tough to prove a true cause-and-effect relationship between gratitude and health, practicing gratitude—such as by reading quotes about gratitude—has been shown in multiple peer-reviewed studies to have an astounding number of physical health benefits, says Dr. Rabin. To name just a few, grateful people often experience:
- Lower heart rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Normal blood sugar
- Faster recovery time
- Slower respiratory rate
- Increased immune function
- Improved cognition
- Better mood
- Higher quality sleep and less insomnia
- Reduced chronic pain
- Less inflammation in the body
- Lower levels of stress hormones and higher levels of “happy hormones,” including oxytocin
- Sharper memory and better cognition
- Lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other lifestyle diseases
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The mental benefits of gratitude
People with optimistic outlooks tend to live longer, and Haley Perlus, PhD, a psychologist in Canada who studies emotional resilience, says making space for gratitude is one of the fastest ways to feel happier and more optimistic. “Gratitude is a productive emotional training tool,” Dr. Perlus explains. “When you are grateful for your life, you can experience the feelings associated with happiness, peace, passion, excitement, etc. These pleasant emotions can then be a catalyst for mental health.” Focusing on gratitude helps you see how many good things are in your life, quiets your negative inner voice, reduces focus on problems, and keeps you from taking your blessings for granted.
Some of the mental health benefits grateful people enjoy:
- Lower incidence of depression
- Less anxiety and worry
- Higher self-confidence
- Greater patience
- Fewer feelings of anger, jealousy, and envy
- Greater ability to forgive self and others
- Less worry about gaining material things or status
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Gratitude is a type of resilience
Whether or not you’re religious, being grateful can have a powerful effect on your spirit, mainly through cultivating resilience. Resilience is a type of mental toughness that gives you the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.
Dr. Perlus says this is an incredibly important trait when it comes to longevity. You can’t control whether bad things happen in your life, but you can control how you react to them. Learning to be resilient in the face of difficulties is highly correlated with a long life, she says.
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In fact, resilience was the highest-ranked trait associated with living past 100 years old, according to a study of elderly people published in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research in 2010. People who scored high on scales measuring resilient thoughts and behaviors were 43% more likely to make it to that 100-year milestone than people who reported less resilience.
This led the researchers to conclude that resilience “significantly contributes” to joining the centenarian club.
Resilience is a learned skill. Dr. Perlus says one of the top ways to cultivate resilience is by “counting your blessings,” writing a gratitude journal, doing a gratitude meditation, or simply making a list of things you’re grateful for and reviewing it often.
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Gratitude begets more healthy behaviors
Being grateful has an impressive list of mental and physical benefits all on its own, but the act of practicing gratitude has a cascading effect: Dr. Perlus says it makes you more likely to choose other health-promoting habits.
As examples—because they are optimistic and don’t take things for granted—grateful people are often more likely to eat a more nutritious diet, exercise, connect with others, do volunteer work, go outdoors, have fulfilling hobbies and even have more sex (one reason for this could be because they move past conflict more quickly). All these factors can increase longevity.
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Exercise your gratitude muscle
Dr. Perlus says being grateful is a learned skill that you can cultivate, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you at first. Find a way to be grateful that feels right to you: voice dictate a list into your phone, write three things you’re grateful for in a journal each morning, call or text one person every day and tell them thanks…or, take a page from the Queen, and write some thank-you cards. “Gratitude creates an opportunity to focus on all the good in one’s past, present and future,” Dr. Perlus says.
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Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist, psychiatrist and the founder of Apollo Neuro
Nicole Van Groningen, MD, an internal medicine physician and assistant professor of Medicine at Cedars-Sinai.
Haley Perlus, PhD, a psychologist in Canada
Journal of Occupational Health: "Effects of gratitude intervention on mental health and well‐being among workers: A systematic review"
Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research: "Resilience Significantly Contributes to Exceptional Longevity"
Clinical Psychology Review: "Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration"