The health benefits of expressing gratitude are many, and some might surprise you.
Scholars, spiritual leaders, and scientists throughout history have deliberated on gratitude. More recently, the scientifically-validated benefits of gratitude are better understood.
Through the work of leading researchers like Robert Emmons and Martin Seligman, we know that this virtue is more than just saying, “thank you.”
Numerous studies are demonstrating how gratitude journaling can increase one’s happiness. Others show that inflammation in one’s body can decrease. Each study offers insights into how a person can improve their overall health and well-being.
Throughout this article, you will discover that expressing gratitude reduces stress, increases optimism, and changes your brain.
This article contains:
What are the Benefits of Gratitude?
The Greater Good Science Center offers a plethora of information on this subject. In a white paper titled, “The Science of Gratitude” (2018), they outline several benefits to gratitude practice.
For the individual:
- increased happiness and positive mood
- more satisfaction with life
- less materialistic
- less likely to experience burnout
- better physical health
- better sleep
- less fatigue
- lower levels of cellular inflammation
- greater resiliency
- encourages the development of patience, humility, and wisdom
- increases prosocial behaviors
- strengthens relationships
- may help employees’ effectiveness
- may increase job satisfaction
Emmons & Mishra (2011) explored many of the above benefits in “Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know.” They concluded that there is “considerable evidence that gratitude builds social resources by strengthening relationships and promoting prosocial actions.” As you continue reading, you will discover more support for making gratitude a habit.
A Look at the Research on Showing Gratitude
Showing gratitude is not merely saying, “thank you.” Wong and Brown (2017) asked how gratitude affects us mentally and physically. Their study involved assigning students into three groups:
Group one wrote a gratitude letter to another person every week for three weeks. Group two wrote about their thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. Group three didn’t write anything. All three groups received counseling services. Group one reported “significantly better mental health four and 12 weeks” after the intervention ended. Their findings also suggest that a combined gratitude practice/counseling approach is more beneficial than counseling alone.
The researchers analyzed their findings to figure out how gratitude has these effects. They determined that gratitude does four things:
- Gratitude disconnects us from toxic, negative emotions and the ruminating that often accompanies them. Writing a letter “shifts our attention” so that our focus is on positive emotions.
- Expressing gratitude helps us even if we don’t explicitly share it with someone. We’re happier and more satisfied with life because we completed the exercise.
- The positive effects of gratitude writing compound like interest. You might not notice the benefit of a daily or weekly practice, but after several weeks and months, you will.
- A gratitude practice trains the brain to be more in tune with experiencing gratitude — a positive plus a positive, equal more positives.
Their findings echo research done by Emmons and many others.
Bartlett & DeSteno (2006) found there is a positive relationship between kind, helpful behavior, and feeling grateful. In, “Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you,” they discuss this connection in great detail. Throughout three studies they determined,
- Gratitude facilitates helping behavior,
- Grateful people help the people who helped them (benefactors) and strangers similarly, and
- Reminding people who helped them (a benefactor) still increased helping behavior exhibited toward strangers. The reciprocity norm wasn’t a factor.
Dickens and DeSteno (2018) found an association between self-control (patience) and gratitude. Grateful people delay future rewards to a higher degree than ungrateful people. The researchers point out that this has implications for more than one’s finances. Increasing levels of gratitude also could help people positively affect health-related behaviors.
Not all the research supports positive outcomes. Sansone & Sansone (2010) highlight four studies that “temper the association between gratitude and well-being.”
In, “Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans,” Kashdan and colleagues (2006) found that trait gratitude had a relationship with well-being, but only among participants with PTSD. Trait gratitude is defined as “an enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behavior across a range of situations” (APA, n.d.).
Researcher Patricia Henrie (2006) explored the affects daily gratitude journaling has on well-being and adjusting to divorce. The study included middle-aged women, all of whom belonged to and practiced the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In “The effects of gratitude on divorce adjustment and well-being of middle-aged divorced women,” Henrie found that participants in her treatment groups experienced no improvement in life satisfaction.
Sansone and Sansone (2010) write that participants in Ozimkowski’s 2007 study wrote and delivered a letter to someone in their lives whom they’d never thanked. The study titled, “The gratitude visit in children and adolescents: an investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being” revealed that writing and delivering a gratitude letter did not enhance well-being among children and adolescents. Ozimkowski’s dissertation, cited by 14 other researchers, was unavailable at the time of this writing (Google Scholar, n.d.).
Gurel Kirgiz (2007) investigated whether experimentally-induced gratitude influences affect and temporary self-construal. The results, outlined in “Effects of gratitude on subjective well-being, self-construal, and memory” suggest that state gratitude does not have a relationship with well-being, but that trait gratitude does. State gratitude is defined as one’s present or current level of gratitude.
Robert Emmons (2010), the preeminent scholar in this field, makes the argument that gratitude allows a person to:
- celebrate the present
- block toxic emotions (envy, resentment, regret, depression)
- be more stress-resilient, and
- strengthen social ties and self-worth.
Gratitude research is on-going by experts worldwide.
When gratitude fails
As easy as gratitude is to put into practice, there is one thing that can get in the way of it ‘going viral:’ Ingratitude. Emmons (2013) offers the following characteristics of ingratitude:
- excessive sense of self-importance
- unquenchable need for admiration and approval
- sense of entitlement
Some might recognize these as traits describing a narcissistic personality. Philosopher David Hume (1739) wrote, “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.”
Researcher Thomas Gilovich (2017) describes ingratitude as the result of “adaptation, dwelling on negatives, and skewed perceptions of hardships.” In Enemies of Gratitude, Gilovich explains how and why these three experiences interfere with one’s ability to express gratitude. In addition to this, he offers ways to combat these enemies.
The Effects Gratitude Has on Health
According to Julie Ray (2019) of the Gallup Organization, “The world took a negative turn in 2017, with global levels of stress, worry, sadness and pain hitting new highs.” How can this trend change for the better? Research demonstrates that one way is through practicing gratitude.
The following studies demonstrate the affect gratitude has on one’s mental and physical health.
- Writing a gratitude letter and counting blessings had “high utility scores and were associated with substantial improvements in optimism” (Huffman, Dubois, Healy, Boehm, Kashdan, Celano, Denninger, & Lyubomirsky, 2014).
- Gratitude letter writing leads to better mental health in adult populations seeking psychotherapy (Wong, Owen, Brown, Mcinnis, Toth, & Gilman, 2016).
- Gratitude buffers people from stress and depression (Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008).
- Positive reframing underlies the relationship between trait gratitude and a sense of coherence. A sense of coherence is how confident a person feels about potential life outcomes. It is the degree to which a person feels optimistic and in control of future events (Lambert, Graham, Fincham, & Stillman, 2009).
- Patients who expressed optimism/gratitude two weeks after an acute coronary event had healthier hearts (Huffman, Beale, Beach, Celano, Belcher, Moore, Suarez, Gandhi, Motiwala, Gaggin, & Januzzi 2015).
- Gratitude and spiritual well-being are related to positive affect, sleep quality, energy, self-efficacy, and lower cellular inflammation (Mills, Redwine, Wilson, Pung, Chinh, Greenberg, Lunde, Maisel, & Raisinghani, 2015).
- Gratitude may enhance peace of mind, reduce rumination, and have a negative effect on depressive symptoms (Liang, Chen, Li, Wu, Wang, Zheng, & Zeng, 2018).
If a person could do only one thing to increase their health and happiness, expressing gratitude might be it. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, has remarked, “when we take time to notice the things that go right – it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day” (BrainyQuote, n.d.).
Every time a person expresses or receives gratitude, dopamine releases in the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is produced in two areas of the brain: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental. The former has to do with movement and speech, the latter with reward (Carter, 2009). When a person expresses or receives gratitude, dopamine releases, thus making a connection between the behavior and feeling good. The more a person practices gratitude, the more often dopamine releases.
Proven Advantages of Keeping a Daily Gratitude Journal
One of the most popular gratitude exercises is the daily gratitude journal. One study found that materialism among adolescents decreased when they implemented this practice. Participants also donated 60% more money to charity (Chaplin, Roedder John, Rindfleisch, & Froh, 2019).
Fritz and colleagues (2019) learned that after completing a gratitude writing exercise, state gratitude predicted healthier eating behavior among undergraduate students. In a second study, they found that a weekly gratitude letter was associated with better eating habits. The teens in this study also experienced fewer negative emotions during the intervention period, which spanned four weeks.
Gratitude journaling might reduce inflammation in people who have experienced Stage B, asymptomatic heart failure (Redwine, Henry, Pung, Wilson, Chinh, Jain, Rutledge, Greenberg, Maisel, & Mills 2016). In a study titled “Gratitude journaling intervention in patients with Stage B heart failure,” Redwine and colleagues (2016) piloted an 8-week gratitude journaling intervention. Compared to standard treatment, the intervention group also experienced an improvement in trait gratitude scores.
There is conflicting research about how often a person should journal. Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2010) found that once or twice per week is more beneficial than daily journaling.
The Benefits of Gratitude in the Workplace
People spend more time per week working than with their families (OECD, 2019). Since this is the case, it is vital that people work in healthy, supportive environments. Instilling and expressing gratitude is a simple way companies can increase employees’ job satisfaction.
Some employers and employees are hesitant to engage in formal gratitude practices. In response, researcher Amie Gordon (2019) identified Four myths about being grateful at work. She outlined the truths about gratitude revealed through scientific inquiry.
The myths and truths are:
- Myth #1: It’s forced.
Truth: Participants assigned to “be more grateful” are more satisfied, healthier, and happier. People enjoy gratitude interventions even when told to practice it.
- Myth #2: It’s fake.
Truth: Expressing gratitude when it is felt matters. Being specific about what one is grateful for heightens the experience for both people.
- Myth #3: It’s fluffy.
Truth: Gratitude is about feeling valued by others and seeing value in others. The majority of employees will leave if they do not feel appreciated and recognized.
- Myth #4: It undermines authority.
Truth: Grateful leaders inspire trust. They are perceived as having more integrity.
There is no denying that many workplaces or specific jobs induce stress. How can expressing gratitude help?
Focusing on events at work about which one is grateful reduces stress and depression (Cheng, Tsui, & Lam, 2015). In their study titled, “Improving mental health in health care practitioners,” 102 practitioners were divided into three groups:
Group 1: Wrote a work-related gratitude journal 2x/week for four consecutive weeks
Group 2: Wrote about work-related hassles 2x/.week for four consecutive weeks
Group 3: No diary
The researchers collected information about depressive symptoms and perceived stress at baseline, posttreatment, and during a 3-month follow-up. Those who wrote a work-related gratitude journal experienced a decline in stress and depressive symptoms when compared to the other two groups. Groups two and three were nearly the same as each other.
How to implement gratitude company-wide
Cultivating gratefulness at work can be a challenging undertaking, but professor Ryan Fehr (2019) has Three research-backed tips for a grateful workplace. They are:
- Build a gratitude habit (rituals, practices, etc.)
- Draw from many resources (appreciation programs, interventions, helping others, others helping us, building skills, etc.)
- Guard against negative emotions (envy, excessive pride, and anger)
Charles Schwab & Co. is an example of successfully implementing a company-wide gratitude program. Diana Jason explains how the company put gratitude to work. As you will hear, the leadership had already focused on employee recognition but wanted to take things further. They decided to shift from milestones and metrics to valuing people. Pay particular attention to her description of their appreciation portal.
Do gratitude programs really make a difference at work?
Floyd and colleagues (2018) argue that much of the research around gratitude has two flaws:
- It is focused on English-speaking and Western-European populations, and
- Current research conflates gratitude as an emotion with it as a linguistic activity.
The researchers assert that social reciprocity still occurs despite cultural differences in expressed gratitude (saying ‘thank you’). In other words, one need not say ‘thank you’ to have a sense of reciprocity. They conclude that:
“Despite the attitudes encountered in some cultures that emphasize saying ‘thank you’ often, such practices do not appear to be necessary for the maintenance of everyday social reciprocity.” When conducting studies with English-speaking or Western European populations, researchers should “use caution when coming to species-wide conclusions based on such populations.”
16 Things You Can Do to Realize These Benefits
These suggestions adapted from Sansone & Sansone (2010) and Emmons (2010) are easy to do daily or weekly.
- Journal about things, people, or situations for which you are grateful. Consider including negative situations like avoiding an accident, for instance.
- Think about someone for whom you are grateful
- Write a gratitude letter to someone for whom you are thankful. Consider sending it or giving it to them in person.
- Meditate on gratitude (present moment awareness).
- Do the “Count Your Blessings” exercise (at the end of the day, write down three things for which you were grateful)
- Practice saying “thank you” in a real and meaningful way. Be specific. For example, “Thank you for taking the time to read this article and leave a comment. I enjoy reading your contributions because they broaden my understanding of this subject.”
- Write thank you notes. Some might say this is a lost art. Challenge yourself to write one hand-written note every week for one month.
- If religious, pray about your gratitude or use specific prayers of gratitude. Interfaith Worker Justice offers Muslim, Jewish, and Christian examples. Secular Seasons has several graces and invocations. You also can find a collection of secular gratitude approaches on Be. Orlando Humanist Fellowship.
- Recall a negative event. Doing this helps you appreciate your current situation.
- Be mindful of your five senses. How does each enhance your life?
- Create visual reminders to practice gratitude. Sticky notes, notifications, and people are great for this.
- Focus on the good that others have done on your behalf.
- Actions lead to gratitude. Smile, say thank you, and write gratitude letters.
- Be grateful gazer. Be on the lookout for opportunities to feel grateful.
- Give something up. We tend to adapt to newness; sometimes it’s a good idea to give something up so that we can increase our appreciation of it.
- Think about what your life would be like if a specific positive event wouldn’t have happened. Write all the decisions and events that would have been different in your life. For instance, what if you didn’t meet your spouse? What if you didn’t get the dream job you have now? What if you hadn’t stopped a particular bad habit?
Below are two exercises you can use to realize the benefits of gratitude further.
The Naikan Reflection Exercise
The Naikan Reflection is a self-reflection method initially developed in Japan. The entire exercise takes about 10 minutes to complete. Naikan means “looking within.” Anyone, with or without religious affiliations, can do this activity. The process involves reflecting on the following three questions while focusing one’s attention on a particular person and time.
- What did this person give to me? (giving)
- What did I return to this person? (receiving)
- What trouble did I cause this person? (hurting)
Doing this reflection helps to grow feelings of gratitude and appreciation for others. It also allows people to discover how much they take versus give in personal relationships.
The Silent Gratitude Mapping Exercise
In the workplace, groups can use Silent Gratitude Mapping to connect and create stronger bonds. This exercise takes about 15 minutes. Participants divide into small groups of 3-5. A large sheet of paper and colored markers for each group, or a whiteboard is used.
First, group members reflect on things in their life for which they are grateful. Then, they write them onto the sheet placing a circle around the item. Next, each person draws a line from the circled items and writes a reason why they are grateful for it. For example, if someone writes, ‘my home,’ she will draw a line connected to it that reads, ‘I can relax.’ Then, participants take a few minutes to read the various responses and add their lines and reasons.
For example, if a participant also feels grateful for his home, then he would draw a line from that circle to his own reason. During the evaluation phase, the instructor asks the smaller groups to discuss what was learned, and then share with the larger group.
A Take Home Message
Regardless of who you are, or the circumstances of your life, the health benefits of gratitude are undeniable. There are numerous gratitude books, workbooks, apps, and premade journals available, making it easier for everyone to increase their practice of this virtue every day.
What activities will you commit to implementing so that you can realize the health benefits of gratitude?
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