Gratitudology part 5: The anti-aging dividend of thankfulness
Gratitudology – my term for the scientific study of the benefits of gratitude – has become, in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal. When I first started writing about gratitude in 2014, I had to do some digging to find legitimate published studies on the topic. Now I find dozens or articles, even a meta-analysis – a survey of the field consolidating key findings. Here are a few of the highlights of the research on the rewards of expressing thankfulness:
Gratitude as social capital
Expressions of gratitude, even for things that are obligatory or to which we are entitled, have a purpose. It’s the currency of goodwill, fellowship, and mutual sympathy. Few would argue that in these divisive times, anything that promotes civil discourse is something to be appreciated. Social capital may be intangible, but studies show that it has material consequences. Mom was right when she taught me to always say “thank you!”
The 1987 movie Wall Street has a line by Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko that goes something like “greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed works. Greed clarifies.” Well if greed is good, gratitude is better. We can now thank science for showing how gratitude brings clarity to the many factors that contribute to well-being, happiness, and quality of life. It has been documented in patients receiving palliative care in Switzerland, spinal cord injury patients in the U.S., cancer patients in India, caregivers of dementia patients in China, you get the picture. In all cultures around the world, gratitude works.
Is gratitude anti-aging?
I’ll start by admitting that the potential longevity effects of gratitude are indirect, but I find the evidence highly suggestive. There is a group in Spain studying the effects of what they call “savoring” exercises of gratitude and optimism in older subjects. Their experiments showed that contemplation of life lessons increased feelings of gratitude, which in turn boosted positive attitudes toward aging, life satisfaction, hopefulness, and perception of health. I love the idea that savoring life though being grateful has measurable benefits. But does this relate to anti-aging beyond improving health? If so, it goes back to the concept of Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, which links longevity to behaviors and attitudes. SST maintains that subjective age predicts late life health outcomes and resets our time horizon view; by expecting to live longer, we behave accordingly. According to SST, time horizons are modifiable with behavioral changes. There is something simple but real and powerful here.
I am thankful for so many things right now. I am thankful for all of the dedicated health professionals who have been working under challenging conditions. I am thankful to be able to practice the uniquely rewarding specialty of plastic surgery. I appreciate my staff and my patients more than they know. And I appreciate you for reading this all the way to the end!
Day G, Robert G, Rafferty AM. Gratitude in Health Care: A Meta-narrative Review. Qual Health Res. 2020 Dec;30(14):2303-2315. doi: 10.1177/1049732320951145. Epub 2020 Sep 13. PMID: 32924863; PMCID: PMC7649920.
Bryant FB, Osowski KA, Smith JL. Gratitude as a Mediator of the Effects of Savoring on Positive Adjustment to Aging. Int J Aging Hum Dev. 2021 Apr;92(3):275-300. doi: 10.1177/0091415020919999. Epub 2020 May 5. PMID: 32370635.