It's Not Just Hype: Gratitude Helps Improve Your Life
The science of gratitude reveals how it can improve your life.
Posted May 03, 2019
Most of us know intuitively know that we should be grateful. This has been instilled everywhere from pop culture and movies to religious and spiritual practices. Most of us know that when we are feeling grateful, it feels really good.
However, maintaining a consistent practice can be a struggle. Researchers state the reason why it can be hard to maintain a consistent gratitude practice is because negative emotions are more powerful and stick around longer than positive ones. For example, according to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson in her book Positivity, negative emotions such as sadness or anger are more powerful than a positive one. In fact, it takes three positive emotions (like gratitude) to combat one negative emotion. Therefore, it is important to have consistent gratitude practices and tools. Further, research supports these tools are vital because they can help with your mental health and overall well being.
In the last 20 years, the science of gratitude has advanced rapidly and researchers have found numerous psychological, relational, and physical benefits associated with gratitude throughout the lifespan (Emmons, Froh, and Rose, 2019). Research has shown that feeling grateful can help with improved social functioning, better sleep, and satisfaction in relationships, as well as serve as a protective factor in preventing psychological distress (Young & Hutchinson, 2012). Not only has gratitude been shown to help with mental health and wellbeing, but with physical health, fears, and aggression, too.
In a study with 67 female breast cancer survivors, those assigned to a 6-week online gratitude intervention experienced a significant decrease in fear of cancer reoccurrence than the control group. This brief gratitude intervention promoted wellbeing and psychological adaptation to cancer. Gratitude has also been linked with reduced aggression and improved subjective wellbeing. In a study of 96 male prisoners, a 5-week intervention decreased aggression and reports of well being compared to the control group.
So science has shown gratitude practices can help you, but what can you actually do? Here are three simple exercises:
1. Choose what you think about before you go to bed.
Research studies have shown that those who focused on the good events during the day and what they were grateful reported better sleep duration and sleep quality versus those who focused on negative thoughts (i.e., bad things happening in the world). Therefore, be mindful and intentional of your thoughts before you go to bed. What happened in your day that you are grateful for? The stranger that opened the door for you, for instance, or the fact that you could afford a $4.00 cup of coffee?
2. Write an actual letter to someone you have not formally thanked.
In a study conducted by Seligman and colleagues in 2005, the researchers found that subjects who wrote a letter to a person they had not formally thanked and delivered the letter showed the highest improvement in feelings of happiness and decreased depression. Think about people who have impacted you positively and changed you, but you were never able to express it. It is easy to write emails, send texts, and leave voicemail messages to extend gratitude and reap the psychological benefits.
3. Keep a gratitude journal.
Start out in your journal naming just five things that you are grateful for. If you struggle with new ideas, start each day using letters of the alphabet: Start with words that begin with the letter A, and work your way to Z. Alternatively, simply focusing on prompts such as, "What have I received from people today?" or “What can I physically see that I am thankful for?” can generate feelings of gratitude. High-tech tools such as your smartphone or your Alexa can be utilized to remind you to stop and think about what you are grateful for each day.
Researchers will continue to reveal more evidence to support the numerous physical and psychological benefits of gratitude. One thing is clear: A consistent gratitude practice can change your life and improve your mental health and wellbeing.
Algoe, S. B., & Zhaoyang, R. (2016). Positive psychology in context: Effects of expressing gratitude in ongoing relationships depend on perceptions of enactor responsiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11, 399–415. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1080/17439760.2015.1117131
Chopik, W, Newton, N, Ryan, L, Kashdan, T. & Jarden, A. (2019). Gratitude across the life span: Age differences and links to subjective well-being, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14:3, 292-302, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2017.1414296
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013, July 15). Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033584
Otto, A. K., Szczesny, E. C., Soriano, E. C., Laurenceau, J.-P., & Siegel, S. D. (2016). Effects of a randomized gratitude intervention on death-related fear of recurrence in breast cancer survivors. Health Psychology, 35(12).
Young, M.E. & Hutchinson, T. S. (2012) The rediscovery of gratitude: Implications for counseling practice. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 51.
Yanhe, D. et al. (2019). Counting blessings and sharing gratitude in a Chinese prisoner sample: Effects of gratitude-based interventions on subjective well-being and aggression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14 (3).