“The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.”
― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
Practicing gratitude is not a new concept, but it seems to be getting a lot of buzz lately. Messages abound about how counting one’s blessings rather than focusing on what is lacking can resolve a multitude of issues including both mental and physical health problems. While it may be easy to dismiss the power of such a seemingly simple practice, at least one study shows compelling evidence that the benefits are not only real, but can be lasting as well.
The science of gratitude
Researchers Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, from Indiana University, wrote about the study they conducted in a 2017 article. The study looked at about 300 adults who were seeking mental health counseling. The participants were recruited before beginning counseling and reported low levels of mental health at the time, mainly struggling with depression and anxiety.
The study participants, who were randomly divided into three groups, all received counseling over the course of the study. The members of one group were asked to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. Another group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings around negative experiences each week. The third group did not do a writing activity.
Wong and Brown found that the group that wrote gratitude letters “reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended,” compared to those in the other two groups. “This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief,” they wrote.
The study found that the participants in the gratitude writing group used far fewer negative emotion words than those in the other writing group. Their findings suggest a connection between shifting attention away from toxic emotions and better mental health. They further found that the results were not dependent on the participants actually sending the letters. The majority of the group did not share their letters, but still experienced the benefits.
Gratitude may change the brain
In another part of the study, the researchers used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity while study participants did a “pay it forward” exercise. Those that had written the gratitude letters showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude. Wong and Brown see this as an indication that practicing gratitude may train the brain to experience gratitude and that this may contribute to better mental health over time.
Developing an attitude of gratitude
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Finding ways to express gratitude is definitely easier when good things are happening than it is when one is having negative experiences. As the study above suggests, however, expressing gratitude during periods of depression or anxiety can be extremely beneficial.
“Gratitude is an integral part of happiness for everyone,” said Marta Oko-Riebau, MA, LPC, and therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center. “I work with most of my clients from the realization that gratitude in general is a huge part of mental health and wellness. Without it, it’s hard to be healthy.”
She explained that when we lack gratitude and focus on scarcity, deficit and what is not working in others, we also tend to perceive and treat ourselves in the same manner. “This leads to depression, anxiety, isolation and fear,” she said. “And fear underlies many mental health issues. I definitely see that in my clients. When they are fixated on the negative, when they have nothing they feel grateful for, they are in a dark place. Of course, there are other underlying issues, such as trauma, etc., but there is an undeniable relationship between gratitude and mental health.”
Marta further explained, “Gratitude leads to a sense of connection and helps one focus on what is working, what is sufficient and good. When we feel that we have enough and that our relationships are enough, it’s much easier to feel like we are in a safe place, to feel that we belong, that we are connected to others. Because we are social animals, relationships are crucial to our well-being and psychological health. Gratitude can help open up, develop trust and develop relationships. Practicing gratitude can turn into a positive feedback loop: the more gratitude, the more satisfied we are with our relationships and the more connected we feel, which leads to higher satisfaction that leads to more gratitude, and so on.”
Marta helps her clients incorporate gratitude into their lives in simple, easy-to-accomplish ways. She suggests looking at small moments of joy rather than the bigger picture. Even on the worst day it is possible to find something positive.
Try these techniques:
Meditation. Before you go to bed, think of two things specific to the day that you are grateful for. Examples:
“I really made my coffee perfectly. Those few minutes enjoying it were really nice.”
“I was really grateful for my coworker saying something nice about me.”
“That compliment from my friend was so special.”
“I love how happy it made me feel to look into my child’s eyes.”
Set an intention for the day. Before getting out of bed, think of one very general thing to do differently. Example:
“Today I’m going to try to be kinder to myself and others.”
Our heads are full of clutter and much of the time we are overwhelmed by negative thoughts and experiences. Shifting our thinking to something positive is a nice alternative to continually going over what went wrong.
Wong and Brown noted that the mental health benefits of gratitude that resulted in their study participants happened gradually. The difference between those that did the gratitude writing versus the other groups became evident four weeks after the writing activities, but the difference was even greater 12 weeks after the writing activities.
Marta agrees that it is a process, and that the goal is not to become super positive about everything, but simply to be able to say, “I’m doing okay,” and to authentically acknowledge the small things that are going well. Find things that are good enough, rather than looking for what is perfect.
“Gratitude is always part of happiness. Happiness is not a state of being, it’s an emotion that comes and goes, but if we practice gratitude we will be better able to sustain a positive state of mind. If we learn to incorporate gratitude into everyday life, we can feel greater satisfaction in life,” Marta said.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Marta Oko-Riebau, MA LPC, for contributions to this blog.***