How Gratitude can Improve Your Mental Health

Nathan Perkins • May 29, 2019

Somewhere along your journey that is your life, someone (likely your mother) may have said to you – be grateful for what you have. This is actually very good advice. And, in fact, the reasons for it being beneficial are rooted in science.

You probably already understand what gratitude is; we’ve built an entire holiday around the concept. But do you know how gratitude works, as in the science behind it? If this is your first time hearing about the science of gratitude, this may come as a surprise.

Our English word gratitude comes from Latin – gratia. It’s an appreciation for what you receive or have. This can be tangible, as in a great Thanksgiving meal, or intangible, as in the ability to love yourself.

Gratitude can be derived from external sources or internal sources, and it’s the external that helps us realize that there exists something greater than ourselves – connections that can be felt through nature, a higher power, or people we’re close to.

Benefits of expressing gratitude include:

  • Improved physical and mental health
  • Resourcefulness, being better able to handle adversity
  • More positive emotions
  • Greater happiness

You can be grateful for things in your past, your present, and even your future, which is mostly expressed through optimism. And as already mentioned, all of this has been studied and researched a great deal.

The Science of Gratitude

Psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough have conducted numerous studies on gratitude with similar results. During one large study, participants were asked to write a few sentences each week.

One group was asked to write about only things that happened during the week for which they were grateful. The second group was asked to write down only those things that displeased them during the week. While the third was only given the instruction of writing down things that affected them in some way.

After 10 weeks, those in the gratitude group expressed feeling more optimistic and better about their lives, while those in the other two groups reported no changes. Furthermore, the participants in the gratitude group reported exercising more during this time and recorded fewer visits to see a doctor when compared to the other two groups.

Studies conducted on the effects of gratitude on relationships found that couples who expressed more gratitude for their partners felt more positive for each other and their relationship, and they felt more comfortable expressing concerns.

Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studied the effects of managers who expressed gratitude toward their employees found that those employees were more motivated to work hard and performed their jobs better.

These are just a small sample of the studies that have been conducted on gratitude, and while not maybe scientific in the sense of test tubes and quantum experiments, the results are difficult to ignore – there is a link between better mental health and the expression of gratitude.

(Just in case it’s not obvious, if you felt better about your life, your relationships, and your career, would this not improve your mental health?)

Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

Gratitude is all about focusing on what you already have, as opposed to things you want or don’t have, which is where most of our thoughts tend to reside. It’s also important to note that gratitude is a skill that requires time and patience to learn. When you were a child, did you hop on your bike for the first time and sail effortlessly down the side walk. Or did you fall over, skin your knee, cry a little, and get back up and try again?

Say Thank You

Check out this short, three-minute TED Talk as Laura Tice explains the power that comes with saying thank you, and why it’s equally important to ask people we’re close with to thank us back for things we want to be appreciated for.

You can thank people in a number of ways – say it to them in person, write it down in a little note or card and send it to them, or by email. The how isn’t nearly as important as the what.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Expressing gratitude in any way, whether speaking it or thinking it has profound effects, but there is something positive that happens in our brains when we write things down. Bonus points for writing about what you’re grateful for as a story.

Stories resonate with us and different areas of your brain will be more stimulated when you can make the experience more multidimensional. And as you may recall from school, writing things down helps us to remember them more easily, which can’t hurt either.

Count Your Daily Blessings

The best times to do this are either first thing in the morning or right before going to bed. It’s important to really feel what you’re thankful for and to make it a daily habit.

If you’re having trouble coming up with things to be grateful for, focus on the things that many others in this world aren’t fortunate enough to have – clean, convenient source of water, food, a roof over your head, medical care, your health. Most of us would prefer better health, but be thankful for the ways in which you’re already healthy, and you’re likely to become more healthy.

Prayer

If you’re religious, great. If you’re not, try praying to the Universe, your Future Self, whatever you want. Who or what you pray to isn’t nearly as important as what you’re praying about. No one really understands the forces of the universe, but there is this little thing called the Law of Attraction, which is coincidentally a Universal Law.

Meditate

Meditation has so many benefits to both body and mind. Try meditating while thinking about something to be grateful about. If you’re sitting outside while meditating, be grateful for the sun on your skin, the warmth, the breeze, and the birds. Or simply hold a picture of something you’re grateful for. Holding a picture in your mind while meditating is a great hack for keeping your mind from straying into thought.

Our mental health is reliant on so many things, and there are numerous ways in which to improve it. A comprehensive approach that combines diet, exercise, stress reduction, coping strategies (link), and more will always work best. And gratitude is just another tool to that end.

There is still so much mystery in the world, so don’t get too caught up with understanding how gratitude works. You probably don’t know how electricity works, but you still enjoy the benefits of it. Give gratitude a try; what have you got to lose?