Volume 1, Issue 6
By Daniel Axelson, MD
You’ve heard it many times, but does the old adage to “count your blessings” really help? During difficult times, it can seem as if nothing is going right. It feels like human nature to dwell on the negative, while reliving bad memories or experiences over and over in our minds. But what if we make a conscious effort to remember and dwell on the positive? Science is on the case.
A study from the psychology literature1 examined 192 university students to investigate whether focusing on positive life events produced any psychological or health benefits when compared to focusing on life hassles. Students were randomly assigned one of three weekly tasks: to list up to five things they were grateful for, to list up to five hassles they experienced, or to list of up to five life events that were impactful in the past week. The impactful life events group could have reported any event characterized as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neutral” so long as it was impactful to them. When scored, the authors found 40% of responses to be pleasant, 30% unpleasant, and 30% neutral. Students performed the tasks once a week for nine weeks. During and after the listmaking, students were asked about how generally happy they were with their life, as well as about physical symptoms and activity levels they were engaging in.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the group assigned to list things they were thankful for were much more grateful about their overall life. Interestingly though, this group also reported a significant reduction in the occurrence of physical symptoms such as headache, dizziness, stomach pain, shortness of breath, acne and cough/congestion when compared to the other groups. They also completed more regular exercise during the study intervention than either of the other groups.
It’s clear that positive thinking can produce some beneficial health effects. So next time you’re down, try dwelling on the good in your life. Even make it a habit!
- Emmons RA and McCullough ME. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(2):377-389.