Gratitude May Promote a Healthy Heart

Be Thankful road sign

In the US, it is estimated that 1 in 7 deaths are due to heart attacks, and the rate at which heart attacks are occurring has been increasing. This means that finding cost-effective interventions that reduce heart attacks could be beneficial for many people. Research has shown that positive psychological traits such as optimism and purpose in life may be associated with better heart health. This MIDUS study looked at whether gratitude was associated with less likelihood of having a heart attack.

Gratitude can be studied as either a trait that’s consistently part of a person’s personality, or a short term, momentary state of appreciation. This article looked at trait gratitude, to see if having a personality predisposed to frequently noticing and appreciating what is good in the world reduced the likelihood of heart attacks. Trait gratitude was measured by how much participants agreed with two statements:

    • “I have so much in life to be thankful for.”
    • “I am grateful to a wide variety of people.”

Researchers also looked at:

    • Heart rate reactivity: how much a person’s heart rate increased during stressful tasks, such as when doing math tasks.
    • Heart attacks: whether participants had a heart attack in the seven years after the above measures were taken.

Result showed that:

    • Trait gratitude was associated with increased heart rate reactivity.
    • This increase in reactivity was also associated with a lower likelihood of having a heart attack.
    • This was true even when researchers controlled for age, sex, BMI, high blood pressure, education, diabetes, and history of smoking.

Other research has suggested that gratitude reduces heart disease by improving bodily functions. Perhaps increased heart rate reactivity reflects the heart’s improved ability to respond to exertion, allowing people to mobilize resources to reduce unhealthy levels of stress that can harm the heart. Alternately, it may be that grateful people are more likely to have healthy lifestyles. More research is needed to better understand why habitually noticing things for which one can be grateful may contribute to having a healthy heart.

Source: Leavy, B., O’Connell, B. H., & O’Shea, D. (2023). Heart rate reactivity mediates the relationship between trait gratitude and acute myocardial infarction. Biological Psychology, 183, Article 108663.

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