In a cruel twist of timing, Sally Magnuson’s husband of 55 years died of COVID-19 on February 10, 2021—the very day the couple was scheduled to get their first vaccines. Around the same time, Magnuson, 80, of Plano, TX, also contracted COVID; she spent weeks in the hospital and relied on supplemental oxygen for months afterward.
Despite all that, she still starts each day with gratitude.
“I literally thank God daily for my life and for what I have,” said Magnuson. She recounted her blessings: she was hospitalized but never needed to be intubated; she had excellent medical care; she had the support of friends, who brought meals and flowers.
She recalled the time her nurse asked her to call if she needed anything; the nurse was occupied with a patient who was dying that day.
“I knew I was so much better off than that poor man,” Magnuson said. “Even with everything that’s happened, there’s a lot to be grateful for. I’m a lucky person.”
Today, Magnuson is on the mend and regaining strength. As a growing body of research suggests, her grateful spirit may have helped her get there. Gratitude can make people healthier, happier and more satisfied with life.
Gratitude can help lower your blood pressure and improve immunity, and you’re less likely to become anxious or depressed.
“Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change peoples’ lives,” wrote Robert Emmons, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis and a leading expert on the science of gratitude. “Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait—more so than even optimism, hope or compassion.”
The long list of health benefits associated with gratitude includes lowered blood pressure, improved immune function and better sleep, as well as reduced risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Heart patients who practice gratitude may recover more quickly. Grateful people also tend to have better habits: they exercise more, eat healthier and are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol.
Regulating one’s emotions is fundamental to increasing an older person’s number of healthy years, and gratitude aids in that, according to Daniel Levitin, PhD, author of Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (2020).
“Gratitude causes us to focus on what’s good about our lives rather than what’s bad, shifting our outlook toward the positive,” he said.
This research supports the wisdom that traditions have taught for thousands of years: gratitude works. All the world’s major religions teach the need for gratitude. It’s one of eight core teachings of yoga. Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
What exactly is gratitude?
Psychological studies tend to compare groups of people who’ve completed some type of gratitude exercise—such as keeping a list of things they’re grateful for—to control groups that completed a similar but neutral exercise, such as writing down what they ate for breakfast. But gratitude has many facets. It can mean reflecting on good things in one’s life, expressing thanks to God or a higher power, expressing thanks to others or even receiving words of gratitude.
“From the psychotherapeutic point of view, we tend to focus on the kind of gratitude that’s centered on appreciating one’s blessings and communicating to others the meaning and value they have for you in your life,” said Brian Carpenter, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, MO.
Experiencing gratitude does not mean glossing over real challenges that need acknowledgement and attention, Carpenter said, stressing that gratitude is a coping strategy that should be offered to—but not imposed upon—older adults. He cautioned that staying rigidly determined to focus gratefully on the positive, and willfully ignoring negatives, could veer into a form of denial.
But a sense of gratitude may be a particularly powerful tool for helping older adults face the challenges of aging. When confronted with illness or the need to depend on others for help, the choice to respond with gratitude can create a sense of control.
Expressing gratitude can make you feel less helpless, more in control.
M.K. Werner, 62, of Plano, TX, recognized that when she underwent treatment for cancer 11 years ago. While at the hospital, Werner resolved to thank every person who helped her along the way.
“If someone came into my room to clean, I thanked them,” she said. “If someone put towels in the dispenser in my room, I thanked them. It became something I could do. I was completely powerless over what was happening with my body, but I could choose my attitude and how I treated people.”
Although it wasn’t her intent, Werner thinks her expressions of gratitude resulted in better, more attentive medical care.
“Nurses would tell me they had asked for me, or they were happy to have me on their list of patients that day,” she said. “I think they knew I appreciated them.”
Barbara Morris of Surprise, AZ, also boosts her sense of agency by expressing gratitude. At age 93, she must rely on others to drive her and assist with other chores. Gratitude makes her feel less helpless. She says “Thank you” whenever she can. She assists helpful family members financially from time to time. And she loves to send flowers to people who’ve done something kind for her.
“It not only makes them feel good, it makes me feel good,” she said.
Older and More Grateful
The capacity for feeling and expressing gratitude seems to grow with age. One 2017 study reported that the experience of gratitude was greatest in older adults, compared to other age groups. Researchers speculate that older people may be more aware that time is limited, and that can lead to feelings of gratitude.
Loss, an inevitable part of aging, can also heighten a sense of gratitude.
“Ironically, tragedy often catapults people toward gratitude whereas constant good fortune can actually make it hard to feel grateful,” wrote Mary Pipher, PhD, in Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age (2019). “Privileged people may habituate to a comfortable, easy life.”
Jane Yancey, 81, of Plano, TX, connects her grateful spirit, in part, to losses she’s experienced in life. She grew up hearing her parents’ stories of sacrifice and hardship during the Great Depression. Her first husband was killed in a car accident; her parents took care of her one-year-old child while she worked. Then she met her second husband, who raised her daughter as his own.
“I’m grateful I had a family to help me,” she said. “I’m grateful for my supportive husband. I’m thankful and grateful for every breath I take. I thank God for every day I’m still above the grass!”
Yancey wonders if her children, now grown, will have the same capacity for gratitude, or will understand how fortunate they have been.
“I don’t know if it’s as easy to be grateful if you’ve never been without,” she said.
Some say it becomes easier to practice gratitude as you grow older.
Receiving expressions of gratitude can be life changing, said Benny Barrett, 72, a retired police officer in Dallas, TX. Years ago, Barrett arrested a young man and testified in the trial that resulted in a prison term. After he was released from prison, the young man asked to speak to Barrett.
The young man’s message: thank you.
“He poured out his heart to me,” Barrett said. “He was grateful I’d taken him away from a bad situation and people who were a negative influence.”
The encounter affected Barrett deeply. Going forward, he said he treated offenders with more empathy, as human beings with the potential for redemption.
Older people may experience gratitude more consistently simply because they have more time. Christel Autuori, director of the Institute for Holistic Health Studies at Western Connecticut State University, teaches a gratitude practice to students as a stress management tool. The students are asked to write five things each morning for which they are grateful, and to keep them in mind throughout the day; students report this simple habit helps them stay more positive.
College students tend to be wrapped up in themselves and their studies, Autuori said, but she thinks it’s easier to practice what she preaches as she gets older. For example, Autuori has lived in the same home in Connecticut for 40 years. It has a long driveway through the woods. When her children were young, she said, she’d power up that driveway with “blinders” on, never paying attention.
“Now that my kids are out and on their own, I’m able to see the forest for the trees,” she said. “I take time every day to appreciate the beauty that has always been there.”
A few months ago, while struggling with low-grade depression, Teri Ervin, 64, of Dallas, TX, decided to renew a daily practice of gratitude. Each day, before she gets out of bed, Ervin reads aloud a list of all that she’s thankful for—her health, her husband, her home. She tries to add a new item each day, perhaps related to her plans for the day. If she’s meeting a friend for lunch, for example, she expresses gratitude for that friendship. Over coffee, she writes about what makes her grateful, using a box of cards with written prompts. In just a few months, she already sees a change.
“I noticed a huge shift in many aspects of my internal life and my close relationships,” she said. “It makes life much easier.”
Simply choosing to be grateful isn’t enough to gain its benefits; most people need strategies to keep grateful thoughts alive. Author Emmons encourages people to adopt a gratitude practice, as Ervin did. That might take the form of journaling, writing letters to express gratitude to people who’ve been positive influences in one’s life, or even gratitude visits—meeting with a friend or acquaintance who was particularly helpful at some point.
Gratitude can serve as an emotional signpost for older adults as they look back on their lives or embark on a new phase. In her practice as a retirement coach, Dorian Mintzer, PhD, 76, of Boston, MA, encourages her clients to start with gratitude as they begin to envision how they’d like to use their “bonus years” after leaving the workforce.
“When people take time to reflect back on their lives—the good, the bad and the ugly— they appreciate what they’ve come through, and they often feel gratitude,” she said. That, in turn, helps clarify what they want for the next phase of life.
Carpenter, of Washington University, saw the power of gratitude in the case of a client who was struggling with depression. The man had chosen to make a major life transition in his mid-80s. A series of setbacks followed; the client began to question his choices and blame himself.
“He wondered if his life would’ve been just fine had he just stayed put,” Carpenter said. “But he managed to work himself through that by adopting a stance of gratitude, by acknowledging that, despite the real adversity he was facing, he still had a lot to be thankful for.”
Sure enough, with time, the client’s depression began to lift. His optimistic spirit returned, and he was able to embrace life again.
“For him, gratitude was really a lifeline,” said Carpenter.
Freelance writer Mary Jacobs lives in Plano, TX, and covers health and fitness, spirituality, and issues relating to older adults. She writes for the Dallas Morning News, the Senior Voice, Religion News Service and other publications; her work has been honored by the Religion Communicators Council, the Associated Church Press and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Visit www.MaryJacobs.com for more.