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Fewer Headaches, Less Back Pain, with Easy End-of-Day Gratitude Exercise

Focusing on the negative may be a character flaw, but it’s also a natural part of man’s evolutionary roots.  Indeed, back in the days when we were hunting and gathering for a living, a keen nose for the negative was critical to survival: The caveman who focused more on the pretty flowers and less on predators and storm clouds is probably not our ancestor.  Today we know that those in-bred fight or flight impulses may actually reduce longevity, by flooding our system with stress hormones that can aggravate physical ailments.  But fortunately, researchers have discovered a “workaround” you can practice at work to not only reduce stress, but alleviate back pain, headaches and muscle tension.

In a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers conducted a three-week intervention with a group of women (average age 34) working in health care — a stress-laden job if there ever was one.  Researchers asked some of the women to end the work day with a simple exercise of writing down three happy highlights — anything from receiving a positive performance review to simply enjoying a beautiful sunrise. Additionally, they were to note why they thought these events occurred (using the above examples, the explanations could be “Because I’ve worked hard,” or “Because I woke early to exercise”).

Participants reported reduced stress, as might have been expected, but the bonus was a significant drop of about 12% in physical complaints.  This suggests that choosing gratitude — with a concrete action of written, positive reflection — may deserve to be added to those other “lifestyle choices” like opting for healthier foods, increasing exercise, stopping smoking, etc. that can improve longevity.

Published February 1, 2014

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