You know the importance of eating a sound diet and exercising regularly to remain strong, healthy and independent as you age. But there’s another ingredient to healthy aging that’s commonplace in Japan, and that we’ve frequently recommended ourselves in these pages.
I’m talking about “kansha”, which means gratitude in English.
Dr. Iza Kavedžija of the University of Exeter in South West England measured feelings of gratitude in a group of people in their 80s and 90s who lived in the city of Osaka, Japan.1
Dr. Kavedžija specifically chose people in Japan to study because gratitude is so highly valued within Japanese culture. She writes that it’s common to hear older adults in Japan use phrases such as arigatai (“I am grateful”) and kansha, (gratitude). In fact, explains Dr. Kavedžija, in Japan the belief that “things will somehow” (nantonaku) work out well is a tradition.
The Power of Hope
Dr. Kavedžija found that many of the older people in her study cultivated a “quiet hope” despite concerns for the future, such as dementia or eventually becoming a burden to their children.
The study participants embraced future uncertainty but stayed engaged in their wider community. In turn, this gave them a sense of security, and offered a degree of confidence in the future.
Dr. Kavedžija explains that as people age many have experienced loss. However, they also have made the most of opportunities to reflect on life and honor relationships with others.
“An attitude of gratitude was embedded in older peoples’ recollections of the past, but also allowed them to think about the present in a hopeful way,” Dr. Kavedžija writes.
“A world in which one has received much good will from others is a different place than one in which one has experienced loss, even if the facts of life are the same.”
Cultivating Gratitude Daily
Dr. Kavedžija found that the Japanese elders she studied cultivated this “quiet hope” through small everyday acts.
For instance, she writes that one of the interviewees called out, “The sun came out! It’s so nice to walk. It is good to live in a place like this,” as she entered a public park where her friends greeted each other by saying “How good that you came!” (kite hurehatta).
Dr. Kavedžija found many of these elders mentioned how grateful they were for a full life and in the case of women, having a good husband who supported the family, and the list goes on.
“Through appreciation, dependence on others is not seen as simply a burden or a potential source of embarrassment, but also as moving and deeply meaningful,” she concludes. “Meaningful relationships and encounters with others comprise a valuable foundation for what Japanese people call ikigai, or that which makes life worth living.”
Dr. Kavedžija published her findings in the journal Anthropology and Aging. While her research in and of itself did not definitively link gratitude to a longer life, she did conclude that having an attitude of gratitude makes life more meaningful and can, therefore, lead one to make choices that result in better health.
Dr. Kavedžija is not the first to examine the health benefits of gratitude. Over the years research has revealed that gratitude can boost the immune system,2 improve mental health and happiness3 and increase blood flow to the brain to sharpen memory.4
When taken together, all of these benefits can no doubt positively impact your longevity. Most important, they can increase your quality of life. And it’s vital to remember that the flipside is also true. A wealth of research into negativity reveals how having a negative attitude can hamper your immune system, increase depression and damage your overall health in the long run.
So, how do you practice gratitude?
Prayer is a common way to give thanks, and I do this daily.
But there’s plenty of other ways to foster an attitude of gratitude. Many folks enjoy keeping a daily gratitude journal or doing a short morning meditation to think about the things for which they’re grateful.
The fact is, every moment of every day is another opportunity to recognize the positive things in your life. This can be as small as acknowledging how beautiful the clouds are or how lovely the birds sound outside your window to expressing gratitude for valued family members and friends.
Best of all, having an attitude of gratitude can benefit others as well. Never miss an opportunity to tell someone you’re grateful for them or for something they did that impacted you – even if it was years ago! Then you’ll not only foster a “quiet hope” in your own life, but in theirs, too.