Is Practicing Gratitude Just a Trend, or Does It Actually Work?
By Michelle Leon, M.A, Therapist, Soffer & Associates
Many of you have probably noticed that practicing gratitude has become trendy. While gratitude can emerge spontaneously, we are seeing a recent push to cultivate or deliberately practice gratitude. We hear people say, “Count your blessings,” and we are seeing more and more people use affirmations and have gratitude journals. But does it work? And in what ways can it help? Let’s break this down!
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is an appreciation of what an individual has received (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021). It is about noticing and appreciating the things we may take for granted. For example you may feel grateful for small or big things, such as having a good day, spending time with friends, paying the bills this month, having a place to live, experiencing love, and having access to opportunities.
Gratitude involves two primary components (Greater Good Science Center, 2022; Harvard Health Publishing, 2021):
Acknowledgment of the goodness in our lives.
You can recognize that there are good things in the world and that you have received good things.
Recognition that there is an external source (at least, partially) for that good outcome.
You can admit that some of your goodness is due to a source outside yourself. This could be other people who have helped you receive or achieve good things.
The benefits of practicing gratitude
Indeed, there are significant social and personal benefits to engaging in gratitude. Many studies have found positive outcomes in individuals who practice gratitude, including mental health and social well-being benefits. Further, it has been found to be beneficial for well-functioning individuals and people currently struggling with mental health concerns (Brown & Wong, 2017).
People who practice gratitude tend to be happier, are more helpful, and generous, have better sleep and academic (and professional) performance, and tend to be less depressed, less stressed, less lonely, and isolated (Brown & Wong, 2017; Mindful, 2022). In a review of the literature on the link between gratitude and health outcomes, the researchers found that in the majority of studies using gratitude interventions, practicing gratitude tends to lead to positive mental health and social well-being outcomes (Jans-Beken et al., 2020). In this review, women who engaged in a gratitude intervention had improved self-reported happiness when compared to women who did not engage in the intervention, and similar results were reported in older adults. Further, another study using a gratitude intervention demonstrated that it helped reduce negative affect and increased psychological resiliency in a sample of older adults. In addition, gratitude can help strengthen relationships and to develop healthier ones. In the same review described earlier, one study found that students who maintain a gratitude diary have a greater sense of belonging, and employees whose managers expressed gratitude for their work, were more productive on a day-to-day basis (Jans-Beken et al., 2020).
Gratitude can have important social and personal benefits across various settings, and these studies suggest that gratitude may be good for our bodies, minds, and relationships.
How does practicing gratitude lead to these benefits?
Practicing gratitude allows us to focus on the goodness we have in our lives and offers us opportunities to use words connected to positive emotions. Perhaps people who practice gratitude attend to more positive things in their life and are less focused on negative emotions (e.g., resentment) and negative experiences (Wong et al. 2018). Further, practicing daily gratitude allows us to notice the positive little things in our daily lives (e.g., the sun shining; a stranger being friendly to you) and, over time, strengthens our ability to notice more goodness (Mindful, 2022). When it comes to improved sleep, research suggests that gratitude influences sleep because individuals who practice gratitude have more positive thoughts (rather than negative thoughts) before falling asleep (Wood et al., 2009).
What are some ways we can practice gratitude?
There are many ways we can practice gratitude, and finding the one(s) that works for you may take time.
Here are some exercises to try:
Gratitude letters: Write letters or thank-you notes to people for whom you are grateful. You may decide to send this, or you may not want to; the simple act of writing it can help you appreciate the people in your life. You can also write one to yourself once in a while.
“Three Good Things”: Identify three things that have gone well for you and identify the cause
Mental Subtraction: Imagine what your life would be like if some positive event had not occurred
Gratitude Journal: Keep a journal to note the big and little joys of daily life. This can help us notice more and more things we are grateful for throughout our day.
Pray:People who are religious can use prayer to foster gratitude
The holidays tend to be filled with social gatherings with family and loved ones. These gatherings offer us opportunities to be surrounded by people and things we are grateful for and allow us to express gratitude. However, for many, this time of the year stirs up sadness, anxiety, or depression. Whether the holiday season brings you joy or makes you feel sad, practicing gratitude may offer you opportunities to find goodness in your life that is less obvious.
Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2020). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(6), 743-782.
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of psychosomatic research, 66(1), 43-48.
Michelle is a master’s level clinician and a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Fordham University. She earned her undergraduate degree from Boston University in psychology and public health and a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Fordham University. She is also a bilingual (Spanish & English) therapist. She is interested in promoting emotional, mental, and relational growth in individuals and helping those who have experienced adverse life events. She has trained in outpatient and inpatient settings and community mental health clinics with children, adolescents, and adults.