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Gratitude May Save Your Life

Higher levels of gratitude may protect against mental illness and suicide.

Key points

  • High levels of dispositional gratitude offered multiple protective effects, according to a new study with US veterans.
  • The health benefits of dispositional gratitude include defense against depression, suicidal ideation, and attempting suicide.
  • Gratitude interventions are easy to do and the benefits include enhanced mental and physical well-being.

Gratitude can save your sanity no matter how crazy the world might become. Gratitude changes our perspective to one of appreciation and acknowledgment of the good things in life. It allows us to pause and recognize what has been beneficial to us along the way. When we turn our attention to positive thoughts and experiences, those crowd out the negative ones. Dispositional gratitude is all about recognizing and appreciating the positives in our lives. And, according to a brand new study (McGuire et al., 2022), being grateful may protect against suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. While some of us may be naturally more prone to experiencing gratitude than others, growing your sense of gratitude may save your sanity and maybe even your life.

In a seven-year longitudinal study of veterans, McGuire and colleagues (2022) found that those who possessed high levels of dispositional gratitude were less likely to develop depression, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, suicidal ideation, or to attempt suicide. That’s big news. Not only were these threats to well-being less likely to occur in those with high levels of dispositional gratitude, but those with low levels of dispositional gratitude were also at a much higher risk of attempted suicide and suicidal ideation, as well as the development of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD.

Not only do higher levels of dispositional gratitude protect your well-being, but they may also encourage us to be less materialistic and less focused on accumulating possessions. In fact, there are indications that spending on experiences, versus things, leads to greater appreciation. It’s the “good times, not the goods” that matter in life.

Focus on the Highs You’ve Had, Not the Lows

Another study, with a more diverse participant group, explored the value of recalling positive memories of the past along and its relationship to dispositional gratitude (Bhullar et al., 2015). When we’re able to focus on the positive things that happened in our past, rather than ruminating on what went wrong, we are more likely to experience higher levels of well-being. While we all know from personal experience that “misery loves company,” it is much better to look for reasons to celebrate the positive memories of the past as well as what’s currently going right in your life or the lives of your friends and family than on the negative events.

Revisiting past stressors or events that caused anxiety in our minds can fool our bodies into thinking the threat is still present. This can produce the same physical state that the original stressor caused— speeding up the heart rate, raising blood pressure, and stimulating the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. None of these physiological reactions are good for us; learning to train your brain to skip past the memories that only bring stress and pausing at the memories that bring pleasure or satisfaction can make a significant difference in your overall well-being.

Can You Learn to Practice Gratitude?

There are several effective ways to begin your gratitude practice.

One is the Gratitude List. Here, you write down all of the things in your life for which you are grateful; the list might include the people you appreciate (family, romantic partners, friends, teachers, mentors), skills you possess, positive circumstances in your life, pets, and so on.

Another effective intervention is called “Three Good Things.” Not only do you list three specific good things that have happened to you, but you also describe the causes of those three good things. This helps you delve deeper into reflection and appreciation for the way things come together in life to yield positive results.

Mental Subtraction is an intervention in which you think about a positive development or event in your life that holds meaning. Then, reflect on the “What If That Didn’t Happen” scenarios; this helps us recognize our good fortune because of the things that have occurred, rather than focusing on what we feel hasn’t gone well in our lives.

Gratitude Letters and Gratitude Visits involve a little more engagement. These involve the sharing of appreciation to important people in our lives through a letter or a visit. It might be writing to a teacher who helped you make a good choice, or to a friend who was there for you when you most needed someone’s support, or to a family member who you never fully appreciated at the time.

Identifying reasons to be grateful encourages us to focus on positive events we’ve experienced in life. And recalling memories that evoke gratitude and pleasure also stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin, our body’s feel-good hormones. When you feel grateful to another for a kindness shown, you enhance the social dopamine circuits which makes you feel even better. Research shows that even if you can't come up with a litany of things for which to be grateful right away, just the act of seeking the good in life enhances emotional intelligence and trains you to look for the good, not the bad, in life.

Practicing gratitude may actually protect your mental health and your life.

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Bhullar, N., Surman, G., & Schutte, N. S. (2015). Dispositional gratitude mediates the relationship between a past-positive temporal frame and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 52-55.

McGuire, A. P., Fagan, J. G., Tsai, J., Merians, A. N., Nichter, B., Norman, S. B., Southwick, S. M., & Pietrzak, R. H. (2022). Dispositional gratitude predicts the development of psychopathology and suicidal behaviors: Results from a 7-year population-based study of U.S. military veterans. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 149, 168-176.