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Gratitude and Mental Health

By November 17, 2023No Comments
man looks out window with expression of gratitude

By J Cangialosi, LCPC, Therapist, Learning and Development Coordinator, Relief Mental Health in Oak Brook, Illinois

Gratitude, noun:

  1. The quality of being thankful
  2. Readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

Such a simple word, yet so powerful.

It’s hard to imagine one single human quality, trait, or habit that has a greater impact on daily happiness and positive mood. Aside from love, of course, and the empathy and compassion that stems from unconditional love.

But I see gratitude as love in action: love for the gift of life, love for the gift of others in your life, and love for the simple things in life that don’t cost money or require anything from you other than, well, your sincere appreciation, or, well, gratitude.

When I say gratitude has an impact on daily happiness and overall mood I’m not speaking figuratively or anecdotally: I’m speaking scientifically. Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California-Davis has researched gratitude for 20 years. His work shows a consistent practice, feeling, or sense of gratitude can improve life in three key areas: social, physical, and psychological.

Social Improvements

  • Increased compassion and generosity
  • Greater ability to forgive
  • Increased social connections/interactions
  • Decreased loneliness

Physical Improvements

  • Improved immune function
  • Decreased nagging aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increased amount of exercise and self-care

Psychological Improvements

  • Increased overall positivity/positive emotions
  • Higher levels of energy
  • Increased optimism
  • Consistent feelings of joy and pleasure

In his research – best exemplified by his paper “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Dr. Emmons focused on the practice of keeping a gratitude journal every day for three weeks. Participants recorded the people, places, things, and events for which they were grateful, and those were the results: quantifiable social, physical, and psychological improvements.

How Gratitude for Works: Neurological Rewiring for Happiness

Neurologically, practicing gratitude has the capacity to change neural pathways, ultimately decreasing the impact of negative thoughts overall. This leads to what I call “flexibility of mind.” This flexibility promotes the kind of open-mindedness that supports happiness and overall good mood, as reflected in the positive benefits of gratitude shared above.

A consistent practice of gratitude – i.e. rewiring the brain for flexibility – helps to improve sleep, another thing I share above. This is likely the result of thoughts of gratitude replacing ruminative, worrisome thoughts. This benefit of gratitude makes perfect sense. Rumination and worry lead to anxiety and can exacerbate depression, whereas thoughts of gratitude and appreciation lead to feelings of satisfaction, belonging, and happiness. A person thinking positive thoughts and feeling happy emotions is much more likely to fall asleep – and have a full, restful night – than a person thinking disturbing, stressful thoughts.

With regards to stress, another benefit of gratitude  is reduced levels of stress. Reduced stress, in turn, improves physical health and leads to the well-documented physical benefits of gratitude such as decreased blood pressure and improved immunity. People who are generally grateful tend to practice healthy habits more often, including eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise, which are directly associated with improved physical health.

This neurological rewiring also results in a positive correlation between gratitude and motivation levels, which aligns with and is a result of everything I’ve mentioned already. Gratitude is a virtuous cycle, meaning that if you’re grateful for and appreciate your life in general, then you’re more likely to approach the individual components of your life with vigor and enthusiasm.

Rewiring the brain for gratitude also increases the desire to spend more time with others we feel grateful for having in our lives – and expressing gratitude strengthens these relationships. 

Gratitude and Mental Health

Gratitude improves overall mental health as it shifts the focus of our thoughts from negative to positive. Over time, this works to create a new default line of thinking which skews positive. Gratitude assists in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety because it creates emotional resilience. Robust emotional resilience directly decreases the impact of negative events or circumstances. The daily practice of gratitude is cumulative: the more you practice gratitude, the more resilient you become. The more resilient you become, the more you’re able to appreciate the good things in life, which in turn, give you more things to be grateful for. This is a prime example – like motivation – of how gratitude creates a mutually reinforcing, additive, and virtuous cycle of thought, emotion, and behavior that both improves and protects mental health.

How to Practice Gratitude For Mental Health in Your Daily Life

There are a multitude of ways to practice gratitude. I’ve listed three quick and accessible ways to get started below.

Write Thank You Notes

Write a thank you note to someone for whom you’re grateful. Express your gratitude and why you appreciate them. This not only increases your dopamine, but theirs! You can also write thank you notes you never plan to send. For instance, you may be grateful to and for people in your past, such as teachers, coaches, relatives, or people you’re not in contact with anymore. Write the letter and tell them how you feel: they may never get the dopamine increase, but you will. This practice will also help you practice gratitude – I know that sounds recursive but trust me – because it teaches you how to scan your past for the good things, and recognize them, which will help you recognize the good in your present, and prepare you to acknowledge and be grateful for the good in your future.

Try Meditation

Meditation is a great way to be intentional about tapping into your feelings of gratitude. It requires a few moments of quiet and stillness. Meditation teaches you to quiet your mind and slow down enough to identify the specific people, things, and circumstances for which you feel grateful. The easiest way to start a meditation practice is by reading, researching, or taking a class or workshop in mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. You don’t ruminate on the past, stress about the future, or try to change the now: you pay attention to your breathing, your thoughts, your feelings, and the immediate physical sensations around you.

Mindfulness does not require sitting in an uncomfortable cross-legged position on the floor, lighting incense and a scented candle, chant, or doing yoga: mindfulness is simply about paying attention. You can practice mindful walking, mindful eating, and even mindful driving: when you pay attention, you notice, and when you notice, you find more things that elicit positive feelings of gratitude.

Keep A Gratitude Journal

This is probably the easiest and most efficient way to initiate the practice of gratitude in your life. To start, all you have to do is write a list of at least three things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude journals and mobile apps are a great way to visually see what you’re thankful for, which ultimately brings happiness and joy to your life. You may write down names of specific people who have positively impacted you that day, or things that went well for you, or simply the way the sun feels on your face at the moment. Whatever form it takes, writing this list is a great reminder that most days are, in fact, mostly good. 

Practice: The Key to Success

At the beginning of this article, I identify gratitude as a noun.

However, as you can see, the gratitude I talk about throughout this article is more than a person, place, or thing. Think of gratitude for mental health as a verb: it’s something you do and participate in, rather than something you watch as a spectator. When you think of gratitude this way, you also realize that gratitude is something you give away for free.

Yes, you get all the benefits mentioned above, but the real goal is to get outside of yourself and focus on giving, rather than receiving.

That’s why we talk about the practice of gratitude rather than the feeling of gratitude. It’s like the old

saying from therapy: thinking only gets you so far – after that, it’s all about what you do. In other words:

You have to behave yourself into good health, rather than think yourself into good health.

The same is true with gratitude. To experience the benefits, you have to practice. The more you practice, the better you get. The better you get, the more you give. The more you give, the more benefits you receive: that’s how gratitude works.

I’ll end with a quote from Charles Dickens, which Dr. Emmons used in his initial study on gratitude, published nearly 20 years ago:

“Reflect on your present blessings, on which everyone has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all have some.”

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