Giving thanks is a wonderful part of the holidays; it makes us feel good to count our blessings! But what happens exactly when gratitude is more than just a passing holiday virtue? Science tells us it’s a powerful tool for our well-being.
We’ll help you not only understand why and how gratitude boosts quality of life, but show you how to easily practice gratitude daily so you can reap its benefits all year long.
The Full Story
Before we dive into how gratitude benefits our well-being, let’s talk about what gratitude is exactly.
Is it a personality trait? A mood? An emotion?
Researchers at UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center asked the same thing -- and they found it’s all of the above, and more.
Robert Emmons, professor at UC Davis and the world’s leading expert on gratitude, defines gratitude in two parts. First, as “an affirmation of goodness.” Gratitude is recognizing the good things we’ve been given. And second, it’s recognizing that those gifts or benefits came from outside ourselves. It’s an emotion directed at the gift giver -- whether that’s a person in your life, or a higher power.
Yes, studies show some people are more inclined to feel grateful than others: those with a strong desire to change their lifestyle, people with fewer depressive symptoms, and women. But don’t fret if gratitude doesn’t come naturally. With a little practice, you can reap all the benefits of gratitude, which are plentiful.
The Amazing Benefits of Gratitude
1. It boosts physical health
Gratitude can make you more likely to practice healthy habits and self-care, like exercising, eating well, and going to the doctor. According to this study, grateful people also experienced fewer aches and pains than their less grateful counterparts and even had lower blood pressure.
2. It boosts mental health
Counting your blessings can make you will feel more satisfied in your daily life and lead to fewer depressive symptoms. Researchers theorize the mere act of focusing on positive emotions (repeatedly) lifts our spirits in the short and long term.
3. It deepens romantic relationships
Gratitude is described as a social emotion; it helps us appreciate the good things in our lives that came from outside ourselves. So it’s no surprise that gratitude has social benefits. Looking to get that spark back in your relationship? Try expressing your gratitude for your partner more. This study from longtime gratitude researcher Sara Algoe shows couples build stronger relationships and feel more satisfied with their relationship and lives when they express gratitude for each other daily.
And you don’t have to focus on just the big things -- something as simple as your partner unloading the dishwasher is worthy of a heartfelt “thank you.”
4. It strengthens friendships
Romantic relationships aren’t the only ones to benefit from gratitude. Expressing gratitude helps us value our friends more, too, which deepens the relationship on both sides.
5. It ups productivity
Want to get more from your team? Practice gratitude in your organization. Research suggests grateful people make better workers. They’re more inclined to take on extra work, mentor others, show compassion when a coworker encounters a problem, and offer praise to others.
6. It leads to better sleep
Studies show when we focus on the good instead of the bad, our nighttime anxieties lessen, making drifting off to sleep a whole lot easier and our sleep much more restful. Goodbye tossing and turning!
How to practice gratitude (and reap its benefits)
Take advantage of all gratitude can offer by cultivating gratitude every day with these quick and easy exercises:
1. Start a gratitude journal
Gratitude journals are trending right now for good reason...they work! The simple daily act of writing down three to five things for which you’re grateful can have a lasting effect on your attitude throughout the day (and beyond).
Practical tips for starting a gratitude journal:
- Focus on new things you’re grateful for each day. When we say we’re grateful for the same things over and over it can dull the positive effect it has on our mood...even if we really are grateful for those things! Mix things up and try to come up with new things you’re grateful for each day.
- Be specific. Hone in on specific incidences that make you feel grateful. Instead of just writing “family,” focus instead on how your mom helped with the kids when you really needed to get some work done or how your spouse made your favorite meal.
- Pick a time to write that works for you. Early riser? Jot things down with your cup of coffee each morning. Rushed in the morning? Make bedtime journaling your habit. The most important thing isn’t when you journal, but picking a time that consistently works for you.
2. Say ‘thank you’
Whether a stranger holds the elevator or a friend continuously
brings joy to your life, let them know you appreciate them with a big fat thank you!
Practical tips for saying thank you:
- Thank people in the service industry! Your Uber driver, your waiter, your barista.
- Thank your parents and/or grandparents! Take the time to tell your parents, grandparents, or other caregivers how much you appreciate them for all they do!
- Nurture your romantic relationships. Thanking your partner for acts of kindness or service they’ve provided can go a long way. Nothing’s too small! Taking the trash out deserves just as much thanks as a fancy dinner date out.
- Don’t forget the kids! Thank your kids for helping with dinner, for making you laugh, for bringing joy and meaning to your life, for just being them. (Speaking of kids: they can benefit from expressing gratitude, too! Research shows kids who practice gratitude have stronger academic performance, are happier at school, and are more social. Make it a family affair.)
3. Write thank you notes
Better at expressing yourself on paper? Once a month send someone a letter or an email detailing how grateful you are to have them in your life and for the kindness they’ve bestowed.
Practical tips for letter writing:
- You don’t have to send it! If you’re not comfortable sending the letter once you’ve written it, that’s OK! Just the act of writing down your appreciation helps you see how important that person is to you -- and boosts your mood.
- Read it out loud. If you are comfortable, read your letter out loud to the recipient. Saying things aloud can help us better register their meaning.
- Write a letter to yourself every now and then. Thank yourself for drinking enough water, for exercising, for resting, for working hard, for loving big.
How to make practicing gratitude easy
Even with the best intentions, starting a new habit can be hard.
Make practicing gratitude easier by anchoring it to a habit you already have.
After you brush your teeth you write in your gratitude journal.
As you make your morning coffee, pause and think of something for which you are grateful.
When you go to grab your phone first thing, first shoot a “thank you” text to a friend, family member, coworker, neighbor before browsing your regular apps.
The anchor activity (brushing teeth, making coffee, checking your phone) cues your practice!
No matter how you cultivate gratitude, our advice is to be patient!
While some experience benefits right away, others may not, especially those living with mental health issues. This study looked at 300 students who sought out mental health counseling. They found it took about four weeks for these students to experience significantly improved mental health. The good news? The longer you do it, the more you’ll benefit.
- Gratitude is one of the best ways to improve our overall well-being.
- Gratitude doesn’t come easy to everyone but you can learn to be more grateful by practicing gratitude more often.
- Make gratitude a habit by anchoring it with a habit you already have, like brushing your teeth or making your morning coffee.
- There are many ways to practice gratitude -- pick what works best for you whether that’s journaling, writing a letter, verbalizing your appreciation, or a combination of the above.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.