One of the most important lessons in good parenting is teaching your child to say thank you. And recent research suggests we should all be making an effort to do it, as it could work wonders for our health.
Scientists have discovered that ‘gratitude therapy’ — deliberately expressing thanks, for instance to parents, teachers or friends for their support — has a powerful impact on aspects of both mental and physical health.
Simply writing a thank-you letter appears to have such a strong impact on psychological wellbeing, it has a knock-on effect on physical health. Benefits include combating depression, easing pain and improving heart health.
The latest study looked at whether gratitude therapy could be used to get teenagers to ditch junk food and eat more healthily.
Alternative therapy: Simply writing a thank-you letter appears to have such a strong impact on psychological wellbeing, experts believe
Scientists at the University of California, Riverside, in the U.S., asked around 1,000 14 and 15-year-olds to detail their daily diet and talk about how they would like to improve it to protect their health.
None was told to make changes to their eating patterns as part of the study.
The researchers then got the students to spend at least eight minutes writing a thank-you letter, once a week for four weeks, to someone in their life who had been strong and supportive — for example, expressing gratitude to parents for their love, friends who had helped them through a relationship break-up or a teacher who’d inspired them.
After four weeks, the researchers compared their eating habits with another group who had only been told to list their daily activities.
The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, showed that those expressing gratitude were more likely to switch to healthier food — eating more fruit and vegetables and having fewer sugary drinks — during the experiment, while those simply recording what they did each day made no changes.
Although the effects wore off once they stopped writing the letters, and they reverted to eating more junk food, the findings suggest that ‘enforced gratitude’ can have a powerful effect.
So, how does it work? The expert consensus is that expressing gratitude shifts the focus from improving health for our own sakes and makes it a way of ‘repaying’ others for their support — even when that support has nothing to do with our wellbeing.
How does it work? The expert consensus is that expressing gratitude shifts the focus from improving health for our own sakes and makes it a way of ‘repaying’ others for their support
Many people struggle with health initiatives that require self-motivation to make big lifestyle changes. However, those changes become easier if they are seen as a way of thanking others.
So, for example, in the teenage diet trial, although both groups talked about the benefits of eating more healthily, only those writing the thank-you letters made changes to their diet, because doing so reminded them of how lucky they were and that inspired them to make changes. Megan Fritz, the researcher who carried out the study, explains: ‘We think grateful feelings may spur people towards improving themselves through feeling close to — and supported by — others.
‘They feel inspired to be better and indebted enough to want to prove themselves deserving.’
Gratitude therapy has also been shown to reduce pain and help women with breast cancer ease their anxieties. It can help with depression, too, as a 2016 study at Indiana University in the U.S. found. Researchers compared depressed patients who regularly penned thank-you letters over three months with those who didn’t. Using MRI scans, they found increased activity levels in a part of the brain that’s often less active with depression — the medial prefrontal cortex, which helps control memory, sleep and decision-making — among those writing the letters.
But it does far more than provide a psychological pick-me-up, according to a 2016 study by the University of California, San Diego. Scientists studied 70 patients in their 60s with heart failure, where the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently around the body. Half were told to take their medication and write a weekly ‘gratitude journal’ for eight weeks; the rest stuck to medication alone.
The results, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, revealed those keeping the journal had reduced inflammation in the blood vessels and increased heart rate variability, suggesting their hearts were in better shape.
Psychologist Jessica Chivers, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, says handwritten thank-you letters are likely to give the maximum benefit. Writing by hand slows the process of expressing gratitude — giving more time for consideration of the content — and puts the emphasis on getting it right first time, as it’s harder to correct than on a computer or smartphone.
This helps reinforce the psychological — and physical — effects of being thankful. She adds: ‘It means you have to be more deliberate and thoughtful. The process of expressing gratitude could be as important as the message itself.’