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BOSTON — My father used to say that we should all walk through life with “an attitude of gratitude.” A new study finds that he was right — especially if you want to add years to your life! Research published in JAMA Psychiatry has revealed that older women who experience and express more gratitude tend to live longer than their less grateful counterparts.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health believe their discovery opens up exciting possibilities for enhancing our well-being and extending lifespans through the simple act of encouraging thankfulness.

Their study followed nearly 50,000 female nurses between 69 and 96 years-old over a period of about three years. These women, all participants in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, were asked to complete a questionnaire measuring their tendency to experience grateful emotions. The researchers then tracked the participants’ health moving forward, including deaths from various causes.

What they found was remarkable. Women who scored in the highest third for gratitude had a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause compared to those in the lowest third. This association persisted even after the researchers accounted for a wide range of factors that could influence a person’s risk of death, such as age, lifestyle habits, physical health, and mental well-being.

“Prior research has shown an association between gratitude and lower risk of mental distress and greater emotional and social wellbeing. However, its association with physical health is less understood,” says lead author Ying Chen, a research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology, in a media release. “Our study provides the first empirical evidence on this topic, suggesting that experiencing grateful affect may increase longevity among older adults.”

What Exactly is Gratitude?

Gratitude is more than just saying “thank you” when someone holds the door open. It’s a deeper emotional state that involves recognizing and appreciating the positive aspects of life, whether they come from other people, places, or other intangible things. Researchers say this thankful outlook appears to set off a chain reaction of beneficial effects throughout the body and mind.

One way gratitude might extend life is by promoting better cardiovascular health. The study found that grateful women had a 15% lower risk of dying from heart disease. This aligns with previous research showing that gratitude is associated with lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and healthier lipid profiles — all factors that contribute to a healthy heart.

Gratitude may also boost longevity by encouraging healthier lifestyle choices. People who feel more grateful tend to exercise more, eat a better diet, and are more likely to stick to their medication routines. They also tend to sleep better, which is crucial for overall health and longevity.

Person holding 'Grateful' sign
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The benefits of gratitude extend beyond physical health. Grateful people often note that they have stronger social connections and support networks, which are known to be protective against premature death. They also tend to experience less depression and anxiety, both of which can take a toll on long-term health.

While the study focused on older women, the researchers believe the benefits of gratitude likely apply to men and younger individuals as well. The good news is that gratitude isn’t just a fixed trait – it’s a skill that can be cultivated and strengthened over time.

“Prior research indicates that there are ways of intentionally fostering gratitude, such as writing down or discussing what you are grateful for a few times a week,” Chen says. “Promoting healthy aging is a public health priority, and we hope further studies will improve our understanding of gratitude as psychological resource for enhancing longevity.”

As we age, cultivating gratitude may be particularly beneficial. It can help older adults maintain a sense of meaning and connectedness as they navigate the changes and challenges that come with later life. By focusing on what we have rather than what we’ve lost, gratitude can be a powerful tool for positive aging.

Paper Summary

Methodology

The researchers used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study that has been following a large group of female nurses since 1976. In 2016, they asked 49,275 of these nurses (average age 79) to complete a questionnaire called the Gratitude Questionnaire-6. This questionnaire measures how much someone tends to notice and feel grateful for positive experiences in life.

The researchers then tracked these women for about three years, noting who died and from what causes. They used statistical methods to analyze whether women who scored higher on the gratitude questionnaire were less likely to die during the follow-up period, taking into account many other factors that could affect death risk.

Key Results

Over the course of the study, 4,608 women died. When the researchers compared the women who scored in the top third for gratitude to those in the bottom third, they found that the most grateful women had a 9% lower risk of dying from any cause. This was true even after accounting for things like age, health status, lifestyle habits, and mental health.

When looking at specific causes of death, the researchers found that gratitude was most strongly linked to a lower risk of dying from heart disease – the most grateful women had a 15% lower risk compared to the least grateful.

Study Limitations

First, all the participants were older female nurses, mostly white and of Christian background, so the results might not apply equally to other groups. The study also relied on self-reported measures of gratitude, which can be subjective.

Additionally, while the researchers controlled for many factors, there could be other unmeasured variables influencing both gratitude and longevity. Lastly, while the study shows a link between gratitude and longer life, it can’t prove that gratitude directly causes increased longevity.

Discussion & Takeaways

This study provides the first evidence linking gratitude to increased longevity, adding to a growing body of research on the health benefits of positive psychological factors. The findings suggest that cultivating gratitude could be a simple, low-cost way to promote healthy aging.

However, the researchers emphasize that more studies are needed to confirm these results in different populations and to understand exactly how gratitude might extend life. They also note that while gratitude is generally positive, it’s possible that in some situations or for some individuals, excessive feelings of gratitude could have downsides, such as feelings of indebtedness.

Overall, though, the study suggests that developing a grateful outlook could be a valuable addition to other healthy lifestyle practices for those looking to live longer, healthier lives.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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