Do you ever have trouble falling asleep? Or maybe you wake up in the middle of the night for seemingly no reason. It happens to me, particularly recently. For the past 8 months I’ve been writing a book, and, with the added work and worry, my sleep difficulties have definitely increased. However, in my research for the book I came across a surprising set of studies that show you can actually improve your sleep by expressing more gratitude.
A couple of studies, one from the UK and one from Hong Kong, used questionnaires to assess people’s levels of gratitude—how often they felt grateful, thankful, appreciative. They found that people with higher levels of gratitude had a higher quality of sleep (Wood 2009; Ng 2013).
Importantly, the second study was conducted in people with chronic pain, and found that the increased gratitude not only led to improved sleep, but that improved sleep led to reduced anxiety and depression. (While those are intriguing results, both are just correlations and not experimental manipulations.)
A group of Canadian researchers has actually looked at what happens to sleep when people change their gratitude habits (Digdon 2011). They asked a group of college students with insomnia to keep a daily gratitude journal for a week. They found that just a week of practicing daily gratitude led to improved sleep. On top of that, the students also had reduced physical problems, and less worrying.
So if you want to sleep better, try taking a few minutes each day to write down at least one thing you’re grateful for.
How does gratitude improve sleep? One fMRI study looked at people’s brain activity while they generated feelings of gratitude (Zahn 2009). The researchers found that gratitude increased activity in the region of the brainstem that creates dopamine (the ventral tegmental area). That’s important because dopamine helps modulate sleep and wakefulness, as well as influencing the brain’s electrical activity during sleep (Monti 2008).
Sleep is also regulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can be affected by gratitude, too. For example, we already know that a particular form of gratitude—remembering happy memories—increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex (Perreau-Linck 2007).
Since reading these studies, I’ve tried to express more gratitude in my daily life, even if it’s just for nice weather or a tasty cookie. It seems to have helped. I suggest that if you’re having trouble sleeping, try practicing more gratitude. It could help improve your sleep by increasing serotonin and dopamine—and you can be grateful for that.
Digdon, N. & Koble, A. Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being 3 (2), 193–206 (2011).
Monti, J. M. & Jantos, H. The roles of dopamine and serotonin, and of their receptors, in regulating sleep and waking. Progress in brain research 172, 625-646, (2008).
Ng, M. Y. & Wong, W. S. The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain. Journal of health psychology 18, 263-271, (2013).
Perreau-Linck, E. et al. In vivo measurements of brain trapping of 11-C-labelled α-methyl-L-tryptophan during acute changes in mood states. Rev Psychiatr Neurosci 32(6), 430-434, (2007).
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J. & Atkins, S. Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of psychosomatic research 66, 43-48, (2009).
Zahn, R. et al. The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI. Cerebral cortex 19, 276-283, (2009).
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