There's never a bad time to practice gratitude — and that's according to science. Beginning or ending the day with an attitude of gratitude can have a powerful effect on both your mental and physical health, says Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, a senior psychologist with Northwell Health.
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Here's why the practice is so powerful.
What Is Gratitude, Exactly?
We all may have slightly different definitions of gratitude, but at its core, it's "the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful in our life," Lisa MacLean, MD, a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
While you can be grateful for your own accomplishments, practicing gratitude tends to focus on things outside the self.
"I encourage an emphasis on gratitude that steers people away from self-focused rumination and connecting to the goodness outside of oneself," Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "In my view, that's where its power lies — deliberately and intentionally reflecting on something outside of yourself."
6 Benefits of Gratitude
The idea that gratitude can improve your health isn't just a rosy hypothesis.
"There's a lot of science behind gratitude in terms of some patient outcomes," Dr. MacLean says. Indeed, being actively grateful can affect a variety of things, like your stress level and even how well you sleep. "Being in a space of gratitude can be a protective quality," she says.
Here are just a few of the health benefits of gratitude.
1. It Can Make You Happier
One way gratitude may spark happiness is through increased self-esteem: An October 2015 study in Personality and Individual Differences found that more gratitude correlated with having higher regard for yourself, which in turn increased feelings of wellbeing.
"If you have a filter of gratitude, it changes how you think throughout the day — you have more positive emotions and more positive spin," Warner-Cohen says. "When you have more positive emotions, you tend to generate more solutions. Positive emotions also have health effects — more feel-good neurotransmitters get released."
2. It May Reduce Anxiety and Depression
The positive emotions inspired by gratitude may decrease feelings of negativity that are associated with anxiety and depression. In this way, gratitude works by "enhancing an optimism-focused mindset rather than a threat-focused mindset," Simon-Thomas says.
Participants in a March 2016 Psychotherapy Research study who wrote letters of gratitude showed improved scores on general mental health compared with those who wrote about daily events.
Those who were tasked with the gratitude writing prompt also showed clear changes in the regions of their brain associated with depressive symptoms and anxiety, says study co-author Joshua W. Brown, PhD. The effect was especially pronounced when people used fewer negative and more positive words in their daily gratitude writing, Brown says.
3. It Can Encourage Healthier Behaviors
The positive attitude associated with gratitude may also prompt you to eat healthier, exercise more and practice self-care. Research has found that people who jotted notes each week relating to gratitude were not only more optimistic but also exercised more and had fewer doctors' visits than people who did not write about gratitude, per Harvard Health Publishing.
"[When] you have a more positive spin to your day, [you] tend to then engage in pro-health behavior," Warner-Cohen says. "People are more likely to exercise and eat healthier foods with a positive approach."
4. It Might Improve Your Physical Health
Even though gratitude is a mental practice, its benefits extend beyond your brain. Gratitude has been shown to promote healthy blood pressure levels, as well as other basic indicators of good health, like immune function and markers of inflammation, according to the American Heart Association.
An April 2017 study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that among people with acute coronary syndrome (a condition in which blood flow to the heart is compromised), those that reported gratitude and optimism were more likely to have better blood vessel function.
Separate research, published in a July 2016 edition of Psychosomatic Medicine, revealed that inflammatory markers were lower in heart failure patients who journaled about gratitude for eight weeks versus a control group.
5. It Makes for Better Relationships
A growing body of research suggests gratitude can strengthen relationships. Spending 15 seconds acknowledging what a person did, the amount of effort they dedicated and how their actions helped is considerably more valuable than exchanging a quick "thanks," Simon-Thomas says.
"When couples do this, the impact on oxytocin is greater," she says. "That's the neuropeptide that helps us trust each other and feel more affectionate."
Gratitude doesn't just benefit romantic relationships but can have an effect on platonic ones as well. Research from the Greater Good Science Center highlights how gratitude can foster patience, humility and wisdom — all traits that make for a good friend, colleague and family member.
6. It Can Help With Recovery
Research shows that "putting a little gratitude in your attitude" can be helpful for those recovering from substance abuse. One reason this may be? Practicing gratitude can help a person unearth alternative coping strategies, according to a July 2017 Substance Use & Misuse study.
Similarly, a July 2016 study in Addiction Research & Theory examined the concept of "recovery capital," which the study authors define as "the quantity and quality of internal and external resources that enable an individual to initiate and sustain long-term addiction recovery." The researchers indicate that gratitude is consistently identified as an important piece of an individual's personal arsenal of tools necessary to sustain recovery.
Ready to Give It a Try?
- Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley: “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.”
- Personality and Individual Differences: “Self-esteem mediates the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being.”
- Psychotherapy Research: “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial
- Psychosomatic Medicine: “Associations Between Psychological Constructs and Cardiac Biomarkers After Acute Coronary Syndrome.”
- Psychosomatic Medicine: “A pilot randomized study of a gratitude journaling intervention on HRV and inflammatory biomarkers in Stage B heart failure patients.”
- Spirituality in Clinical Practice: “The role of gratitude in spiritual well-being in asymptomatic heart failure patients.”
- The Journal of Positive Psychology: “General feelings of gratitude, gratitude to god, and hemoglobin A1c: Exploring variations by gender.”
- Greater Good Science Center: “The Science of Gratitude.”
- Substance Use & Misuse: “Gratitude and Drug Misuse: Role of Coping as Mediator.”
- Addiction Research & Theory: "Does gratitude promote recovery from substance misuse?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Giving thanks can make you happier"