Why a Gratitude Practice is More Important Now than Ever

In the United States, at this time of year, the focus often turns to being thankful. And, although this year has been a challenging one, and for many of us, our Thanksgiving festivities will look very different than they have in past years, I hope that you’re still appreciating what you do have. Why? Because a wealth of research shows that gratitude can have a positive effect on your mood, relationships, work performance, and perhaps even your health.

For example, In one study, people who were on a waitlist for psychotherapy for a range of issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse) were assigned to one of three groups. One group was asked to keep a gratitude journal. Another was asked to keep track of kindnesses – ones they had been the recipients of, and acts of kindness that they were assigned to do each day. The third group, the control group, was asked to write more generally about their lives. After fourteen days the individuals in the first two groups felt more optimistic, satisfied, and less anxious than did those in the control group.

Another study found that appreciation boosts one’s sense of life satisfaction. The study author defined appreciation as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something—an event, a behavior, an object—and feeling positive emotional connection to it.” In this particular study, she actually distinguished appreciation from gratitude. (She defined gratitude as showing positive emotion towards someone for doing something for you). In her research, she found that appreciation was twice as significant for boosting life satisfaction compared to gratitude. In other words, you don’t have to wait for someone to do something for you to be grateful. Instead, just taking the time to appreciate something – whether it’s your child’s smile, the lovely weather, or the cushiness of your couch, can add to your overall quality of life.

Getting into the habit of expressing gratitude can also change your brain. A study  by Wong et. al., found that individuals who wrote a gratitude letter once a week for three weeks showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain, when they expressed gratitude, compared to a control group. Interestingly, this effect was still evident three months later. The authors surmised that this finding suggests that practicing gratitude might make the brain more sensitive to experiencing positive emotion in response to moments of gratitude in the future. In turn, given what we know about the benefits of gratitude, this may set the stage for better mental health across time.

Gratitude has also been shown to be beneficial for physical health. First, in a variety of populations, it has been linked to better sleep quality such as feeling more refreshed, falling asleep more quickly, and being more alert during the day. Gratitude has also been linked to reduced blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and improved heart rate variability.

Gratitude is also essential for healthy relationships. In a fascinating review of the literature on gratitude in marriages, Jeremy Adam Smith summarized research which shows that expressing gratitude in relationships has been linked to better relationship quality. He writes “gratitude must go both ways to be effective. It’s the role of the spouse to serve as witness to their partner’s life. Gratitude tells the spouse that they are being seen, that their sacrifices and struggles are visible and honored.”

Yet, despite the benefits of gratitude, a survey from the Templeton Foundation found that people are less likely to feel or to convey gratitude in the workplace than in any other setting. Furthermore, research has found that those in power (like leaders), are more prone to interpret others’ expressions of gratitude to them cynically (i.e. feeling that others were “kissing up” to them). As a result, they are less likely to express gratitude to others.  This is particularly problematic, since Grant and Gino found that a simple expression of gratitude by a manager resulted in their employees feeling valued and it even boosted their sense of self-efficacy (their belief in their ability to accomplish a goal). It also increases the likelihood that they would help a fellow co-worker.

The bottom line? Practicing gratitude is beneficial on so many different levels. Want to give it a try? Read on for some simple ways to practice gratitude in your life.

  1. The Three Good Things Practice 

At the end of each day take a few minutes to write down three things that went well for you, and your description of why you think they occurred. Research found that doing this exercise every day for a week boosted happiness levels for a six months!

2. The Give It Up Practice

For one week, give up something you enjoy. Whether it’s chocolate, a favorite show, or Facebook, abstain from it. A week later, reintroduce it to your life, and notice how you feel. Do you appreciate it more than you did before? Most of us do! 

The premise of this exercise is that it shows us how much we may take aspects of our lives for granted. You can keep doing it, week after week, by giving up a new pleasure, and then reintroducing it the following week. 

3. The Gratitude Letter

Take the time to write a letter to someone, sharing your appreciation for them. Perhaps you could comment on something kind he or she did for you. Or, you might choose to express qualities that you admire in him or her. Then, send it. You’ll not only boost your own mood, but you’ll also boost the mood of the recipient (after all, who doesn’t like to read nice things about themselves!?)

Click below for a short video in which I lead you through a guided meditation designed to get you in touch with feelings of gratitude in your own life. Try it out, and see how you feel! (And if you enjoy it and find it helpful, then click here to find out how to access some additional ones). 

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