The Hidden Powers of Gratitude
Four science-backed reasons to practice more gratitude—and three ways to do it.
Posted November 19, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Laughter has long been hailed the best medicine, but a growing body of research is showing gratitude to be a major player in the path to a happy and healthy existence. Scientific findings have revealed that when we make a habit of focusing on and appreciating the positive parts of life, we can enhance our overall well-being.
As one journal review noted gratitude is “related to a variety of clinically relevant phenomena.” These include positive outcomes in mental health (particularly around depression), adaptive personality characteristics, positive social relationships, and improved physical health (especially regarding stress and sleep).
So what are some of the seemingly magical rewards of gratitude? Here, in honor of our most appreciation-oriented month, I will share some of the findings on the exciting rewards of feeling thankful as well as a few tips on how to bring more gratitude into our daily lives.
1. Better Sleep
A good night’s sleep may be a few grateful thoughts away. In 2009, researchers discovered that gratitude predicted greater subjective sleep quality and sleep duration as well as less sleep latency and daytime dysfunction in those studied. The study was noted as being the first to show that a positive trait is related to good sleep quality above the effect of other personality traits. Thus, focusing on more positive thoughts of things we appreciate can be a wise addition to our nightly routine.
2. Lower Stress and Depression
When it comes to our mental health, gratitude can particularly benefit our levels of stress and depression. One 2008 study looked at the relationship between gratitude and perceived social support, stress, and depression during a life transition. What they found is that gratitude seemed to directly foster social support and to protect people from stress and depression.
Similarly, a more recent study from 2018 looked at the interaction between gratitude and depression in university students in China. What they discovered is that gratitude “may not only have a negative influence on depression, but may also counteract the symptoms of depression by enhancing a state of peace of mind and reducing ruminative thinking.” Anyone who’s struggled with depression knows what it’s like to be stuck in rumination. The notion that enhancing gratitude could serve as a tool to help alleviate depression is an optimistic finding worth further exploring.
3. Healthier Eating Habits
Recently, a group of high school students from four different schools was involved in a study in which their goal was to eat healthier. Some of the students were asked to write gratitude letters, as they simultaneously tracked their eating habits. What researchers found is that the students who expressed gratitude reported healthier eating over time. This led the team to conclude that “gratitude-based interventions may facilitate improvements in healthy eating behavior,” a goal that many of us have for our health.
4. Heart Health
When a group of patients suffering from hypertension was enrolled in a 10-week, gratitude-based intervention, they experienced statistically significant decreases in their blood pressure. The role of gratitude in boosting heart health is one that has been researched in many ways. One such study was authored by Paul J. Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego. After tasking asymptomatic heart failure patients with a “simple gratitude exercise,” Mills wrote:
We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they journaled. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk. It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health.
Given the enormous mental and physical benefits of gratitude, here are some suggestions for connecting with our feelings of appreciation.
Take Five to Feel Grateful
We should all aim to designate at least five minutes a day to reflect on what we’re grateful for. Yes, there may have been a maddening amount of traffic that made us late for work. Yes, our kid may have forgotten his bookbag again. Yet, what are some things in our day that we can step back and appreciate? When we’re wrapped up in our day’s tasks, whether it’s getting to the office or flying to another country, it’s easy to take note of and tally up our frustrations. We tend to take what is good for granted, while honing in on anything going wrong.
Yet, taking just minutes to shift our perspective, we may note something as simple as how delicious our morning coffee tasted as we inched along in traffic or how easygoing our partner was about driving our son his backpack at school. Instead of thinking about how long the line to get through airport security is, we may use that queue time to do our daily gratitude practice and marvel at how fortunate we are to be able to travel. These observations can be as small as appreciating a smile from a coworker or as large as connecting with the depth of love we feel for someone close to us. The important thing is simply to carve out that time to reflect.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Personal stories of the rewards of gratitude journals have been reported by everyone from wellness bloggers to health researchers, from high school students to Oprah. These stories are backed by science showing that keeping a gratitude journal can enhance our happiness and well-being. The most important thing to remember is there is no wrong way to keep this journal as long as we’re using it to connect to anything and everything that ignites our gratitude.
Write a Gratitude Letter
Greater Good Berkeley designed an exercise to write a thank-you letter to someone who has offered us something meaningful and to deliver that letter in person. The instructions suggest we think of a particular person we have not yet thanked as well as something specific they have done for us. Doing this exercise helps us connect with our own feelings of gratitude but also encourages us to connect with someone who matters to us in a way we might not otherwise.
Each of these practices is intended to offer us a doorway through which to connect to our gratitude, however, each of us may find our own approach or technique that helps us focus on the positive aspects of our life or even just our day. In addition to making us healthier, this orientation can help connect us more deeply to positive emotions like joy and awe and can bring us closer to the people we care for. In this way, there is really no downside to making thankfulness not just an annual cause for celebration, but a year-round goal and daily practice.