16 Benefits Of Gratitude, According To Science & Mental Health Experts
Practicing gratitude is as easy as saying thank you for life's blessings, and the sooner you start, the sooner you'll start reaping the benefits of gratitude—of which there are plenty, by the way.
Gratitude is "the practice of making space for appreciation," licensed psychologist Snehal Kumar, Ph.D., tells mbg. This could be an appreciation for the people and things in your life, the experiences you've had, or the experiences you've yet to have, but gratitude can also (and should) be rooted in an appreciation of the self, Kumar explains.
What separates gratitude from thankfulness is intention, therapist Joree Rose, LMFT, adds. Gratitude "is a quality of thankfulness," she says. "It's something you intentionally choose to focus on and practice, which means you don't just feel it; you do something about it."
So what happens when you do something about it? Here's a list of all the various benefits of practicing and expressing gratitude on a regular basis, according to the experts and scientific research:
1. Gratitude can help relieve stress.
Practicing gratitude has been shown to improve emotional regulation, a key component of managing stress. In a 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers analyzed participants' heart rates before, during, and after experiencing gratitude and before, during, and after experiencing resentment. When an individual focused on the things they were grateful for, their heart rates decreased—a change associated with calmness and a more sedative state. Additionally, the gratitude practice relaxed communication between various regions of the brain correlated with increased anxiety, suggesting being grateful might make it easier for the mind to not get so worked up worrying about things.
These findings suggest that when you're in the thick of a stressful situation, if you are able to refocus your attention and energy on things that you are grateful for in the moment, you can calm both the mind and body, therefore reducing the physical and mental symptoms of stress.
2. Gratitude can make you feel more positive emotions.
Gratitude causes the brain to produce an increase in dopamine (a neurotransmitter that's related to feelings of pleasure and reward-motivated behavior) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter believed to help regulate mood and social behavior), licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist Catherine Jackson tells mbg.
What that means practically? "A grateful mind will allow you to be less stressed and feel more positive emotions," Jackson explains. "Research suggests thinking of things you are grateful for has a positive impact on how you feel and behave."
3. Gratitude can help you calm down in tough moments.
All those feel-good chemicals we just mentioned? They're also good for your emotional state. Take this example: Rose tells mbg that during a group mindfulness class in which she led a guided gratitude meditation, one of her clients was able to soften his anger toward his wife by reframing his mindset from hostile to grateful. The couple had gotten into an argument the morning before Rose's class, but by focusing on the fact that he has his wife to argue with rather than the fight itself, the argument became less impactful.
"[When] you are triggered, overwhelmed, anxious, sad, angry, depressed, etc., the amygdala (the emotional alarm in the center of the brain) gets triggered, which shuts down executive functioning," where logic, reason, rationality, communication, and decision-making reside, Rose explains. If you choose gratitude over a grudge and over the negative, it won't necessarily negate the issue entirely; however, it will help you feel less emotionally charged.
In other words, gratitude helps to "calm the emotional brain" because it gives you the ability to analyze and respond rather than give in to your initial reaction to what is arising.
4. Gratitude strengthens your social relationships.
As soon as you become comfortable in your relationships and become better acquainted with another person's quirks and "flaws," it's easy to dwell on even the slightest irritations, miscommunications, and disappointments that may arise within the relationship. Unfortunately, this can drive a wedge between you and a friend or loved one. But Rose says the more you focus on the good in your relationships, the more you'll find.
"[In addition to an] increase in feeling loved and cared for, as well as love and caring for others, [practicing gratitude] will also help you to increase the feeling of interconnectivity with others," Rose explains. By allowing you to tap into a greater human experience, ultimately overlapping with the practice of self-compassion, gratitude serves as a gentle reminder that you are not alone; your problems and insecurities are valid and shared, and recognizing this can help strengthen your social connections.
To her point, a series of five 2012 studies published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found gratitude enhances empathy, and in turn, reduces aggression. Per the study's results, this is because empathy is the ability to be sensitive toward and understand people's intentions and emotions. When individuals are empathetic, they are less likely to be confrontational and more likely to behave in a prosocial manner.
5. Gratitude might help you understand others better.
Speaking of empathy, according to research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, individuals who regularly practiced gratitude were said to have more gray matter (cell bodies in regions of the brain where information is processed) in the right temporal lobe of the brain (the part of the brain that processes emotions). Increased gray matter volume in that particular area has been associated with "increases in healthy individuals with higher competence in interpreting other's intentions," the researchers noted in the paper. Taken together, these findings suggest that gratitude may be connected to a better ability to understand others.
Look at it this way: The more you express feelings of gratitude, the easier it is to put other people's actions into perspective and to interpret how and why they feel or respond to circumstances in specific ways.
6. Gratitude might make you physically healthier.
Research shows that the more grateful you are, the healthier you feel. A 2013 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found more grateful people were more likely to report better physical health. Why? The researchers found those who practiced more gratitude tended to have better psychological health, participated in more healthy activities, and were more willing to seek help for their health concerns, all of which made them more likely to experience better actual health.
In turn, some research suggests that honing a more grateful mentality now might even help prevent disease later on in life. One 2015 study found gratitude can lead to a better mood, better quality of sleep, more self-efficacy as it relates to heart health, and even lower amounts of inflammation in the body.
Another study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed blood flow across various regions of the brain while participants expressed feelings of gratitude and found that individuals who showed more gratitude experienced higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls major bodily functions such as eating, drinking, sleeping, your metabolism, and stress responses.
"From this evidence on brain activity, it starts to become clear how improvements in gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects from increased exercise and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains," neuroscientist Alex Korb, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today.
7. Gratitude can help you sleep better.
Can't sleep? Instead of counting sheep, considering counting your blessings. A 2011 study published in the journal Applied Sciences: Health and Wellbeing found that when college students struggling to get a good night's sleep adopted a gratitude practice, they had less worry and less arousal before bed (two things that tend to make it harder to wind down and get to snoozing) and moderately improved sleep overall.
8. Gratitude makes you less materialistic.
Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in August 2018 found the secret to raising a child who isn't materialistic is to instill a sense of gratitude in them as early as possible. According to one of the experiments discussed in the publication, prompting children to keep a gratitude journal proved effective; however, if writing isn't something your child is interested in, California psychiatrist Monisha Vasa, M.D., tells mbg they'll also learn by example.
"Allow children to witness you modeling being helpful and kind to others in small or big ways" so that they can ultimately mimic your behavior, Vasa says. "Noticing and participating in acts of kindness as a family allows for more connection and positive experiences, which we can all be grateful for."
Gratitude in young people has also been found to be correlated with less envy of others.
9. Gratitude helps you recognize how much you have.
Let's say finances are tight. Someone who dwells on the negative would probably harp on their bank account collecting dust. But someone who regularly expresses their gratitude might focus their attention on the rain that nourishes the trees that give them oxygen, the soft pillow they rest their head on every night, or a dear friend who makes sure to call if for no other reason than to say hello.
Finding each and every opportunity to exercise gratitude—and seizing them—is to condition the mind to "discover more things to appreciate and create new, positive mental habits and even neural pathways in the brain," the Rev. Connie L. Habash, LFMT, tells mbg. In doing so, gratitude can help you view the world with a glass-half-full approach, shifting your perspective from a deficit mindset to one of abundance.
10. Gratitude puts you at a lower risk of depression.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Rome found regularly expressing feelings of gratitude can lead to fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety symptoms.
"Gratitude is the way by which we remind ourselves that not everything is bad and that there are blessings we can focus on," Sanam Hafeez, M.D., a neuropsychologist in New York City and Columbia University faculty member, tells mbg. As a result, gratitude can cause a "ripple effect" in which counting your blessings makes you feel more motivated, "and by feeling more motivated, you are continuing to work toward a dream job, a fitness goal, or an improved relationship," Hafeez explains. That ongoing motivation and sense of hope can be a key factor when it comes to protecting yourself against depression and other mental health difficulties.
11. Gratitude promotes higher self-esteem.
Studies show that feeling confident in who you are and your abilities can also stem from regularly expressing feelings of gratitude. It happens in a kind of domino effect: The more positive you feel within yourself, the more positive energy you express to others and the world around you, clinical psychologist Shelley Sommerfeldt, Psy.D., tells mbg.
"It is commonly noted that the better a person feels, the more likely they are to express happiness to others," and the less likely they are to "compare themselves to others and feel resentful or negative," Sommerfeldt says.
12. Gratitude promotes a more positive outlook on life.
Did you know the human brain is practically hard-wired to automatically, intensely, harp on the negative in life? That same energy is rarely displayed in times of celebration or positivity. A regular gratitude practice can challenge this negativity bias—aka our brain's natural tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive—in order to promote a more positive outlook.
In a series of three studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers randomly assigned participants to either keep a daily or weekly log of one of three topics: hassles they encountered, things they were grateful for, or neutral life events and relationships. Participants were encouraged to document their overall mood, physical and mental health symptoms, and their behaviors along the way as well. The results showed that participants required to engage in a gratitude practice were relatively more positive and experienced more emotional and interpersonal benefits than participants who focused on other topics.
"It is easy for us to focus on what's going wrong in our lives rather than on the things that are going right," licensed clinical psychologist Roxy Zarrabi, Psy.D., tells mbg. Practicing gratitude regularly can counteract this by increasing your appreciation for what you have, which, Zarrabi states, ultimately "contributes to psychological, physical, and social benefits."
13. Gratitude promotes selflessness.
Mark Borg Jr., Ph.D., a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and author of Don't Be a Dick: Change Yourself, Change Your World, tells mbg that one of the most important benefits of gratitude is that, although you can (and should) be grateful for your own accomplishments and skills, gratitude is deeply rooted in taking the focus off ourselves and redirecting your attention to the people and world around you.
"[Gratitude] puts us into communication and communion with the world around us (often as represented by other people)," Borg says. "[It] can lead to a cycle of giving and receiving that becomes reciprocal and can lead to a state of feeling and being in mutuality with the world."
14. Gratitude can help you cope through emotional trauma.
Research shows turning to gratitude as a coping mechanism in times of mental stress and emotional trauma can help alleviate some of the pain and prevent symptoms of PTSD and depression from forming. According to Rose, as long as you remain centered and stay breathing, even in the worst-case scenario, you always have something to be grateful for.
"It's a great reminder to say to yourself, 'I'm already getting through this…and I'm breathing,'" she says. "As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, and you will get through whatever challenge is arising."
15. Gratitude might teach your brain to make altruism more rewarding.
Research suggests that the more grateful you are for the people, experiences, and material things in your life, the more willing and the happier you are to give to those less fortunate.
In one study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers analyzed people's brain activity through an MRI scanner as they watched money being transferred into either their own account (designed to spur feelings of gratitude) or the account of a local food bank (designed to spur feelings of altruism). Both feelings lit up the same region of the brain—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes risk and reward—showing that the feelings of gratitude and giving are closely related.
Then the researchers had people pick up gratitude journaling. In a fascinating turn of events, after three weeks of the writing practice, people's brains began responding differently to feelings of gratitude and altruism: That same ventromedial prefrontal cortex started lighting up even more in response to giving than it used to before starting the gratitude journaling.
"Could practice change how emotions that support social relationships—such as gratitude, empathy, and altruism—are typically programmed into the brain? Through practicing gratitude, could people become more generous?" Christina Karns, Ph.D., the neuroscientist behind the study, wrote in a Washington Post essay exploring her findings. "Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself."
16. Neurologically speaking, the effects of gratitude might grow over time.
Research published in the journal Psychotherapy Research in 2016 suggests that the more often you express thanks, the stronger the psychological rewards are for doing it.
The study divided some 300 participants into three groups: The first group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person for three weeks, the second was asked to write about their feelings about negative experiences, and the third was not assigned a writing prompt. The results showed that individuals who wrote letters of gratitude reported "significantly" better mental health after their writing exercise ended—but that wasn't even the most fascinating finding.
More than two months later, the researchers used an fMRI scan to analyze everyone's brain activity while they received money from a kind stranger (designed to inspire feelings of gratitude). The people who had written the gratitude letters showed a lot more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with learning and decision-making, than those who hadn't done a writing exercise. That suggests a three-week gratitude practice was still affecting people's brains nearly three months after they'd started it.
"This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain," wrote Joel Wong, Ph.D., and Joshua Brown, Ph.D., two psychologists who were part of the research team behind the study, in Greater Good Magazine. "Practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line."
So there you have it: Making space for appreciation can positively affect your life physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and those effects might just add up over time. If you're ready to get started, here are a few questions to help spark gratitude and some simple ways to bring more gratitude into your life.
Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join live July office hours.