Over the years, I have been fascinated by the physiology of emotion.
Everyone has experienced the negative impact of emotion on your own physiology. For example, you might feel a “knot in your stomach” when you’re worried. Or, you might feel your heart race when you’re nervous or anxious.
Because I’m interested in people getting to good health outcomes as quickly and efficiently as possible, let’s focus on two emotional practices that have been scientifically shown to improve your health: gratitude and appreciation.
- Gratitude is usually defined as “thankfulness” or “readiness to show appreciation”.
- Appreciation builds on gratitude. Definitions include “a full understanding” and “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.”
I think the fact that our human brains are hardwired to first see the negative aspects of a situation has an evolutionary protective benefit. We are programmed to be careful, including being suspicious of others’ intentions, as a way to help ensure our physical survival.
Gratitude turns the tables on these inborn inclinations.
When you feel grateful, you focus on the positive instead of the negative; on what you have instead of what you are lacking.
Many studies show connections between gratitude and improvements in measures of physical and psychological health.
Researchers at Robert Emmons’ lab at UC Davis are documenting the physiologic improvements that occur in people when they perform practices such as keeping a daily gratitude journal. These improvements include lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and less anxiety and depression. Research at this center “linked gratitude with a 23% decrease in levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.” (reference)
Many years ago at a hospital lecture in Los Angeles, I first learned about HeartMath. Their research directly links feeling positive emotions with improved cardiac health. In particular, they looked at heart rate variability (HRV), an important indicator of heart health, and the influence of both positive and negative feelings.
Here is what bad and good HRV look like, in association with negative and positive emotion:
Our heart rate is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which responds instantly to stress. Calming your breathing, as well as mindfulness, meditation, and getting enough sleep, can improve your HRV. Even more fascinating is that feeling positive feelings, especially appreciation, can improve your HRV. (reference) Better HRV is now associated with a longer, healthier lifespan.
“It’s Only Too late if You Don’t Start Now”
The best part of the health benefits of gratitude is that you can start getting this benefit at any time. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t raised by positive parents or if you were never taught before how to focus on the positive.
The two simplest gratitude practices are:
- Make a daily short list of three to five people or things you are thankful for, And/or
- Write and send a thank you note to someone in your life.
Appreciation also means “to increase in value.” In addition to your gratitude practices, add a mental image AND an actual feeling of appreciation to further increase the health benefits of these positive emotions.
Gratitude is focused on you; appreciation takes it to the next level by focusing on other people and things in your life.
As the holiday season starts picking up speed, start with “Thanksgiving” – giving thanks for the good in your life. Then, increase the good effects on your brain, heart, and body by adding a big helping of appreciation.
And, most of all, ENJOY!
Take a moment, and share with me in the comments your favorite positive-emotion practice.