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How Gratitude Improves Mental Health

Gratitude is all about the expression of appreciation. We appreciate people, things, and experiences that we come across in our lives; and, as it turns out, this expression of gratitude can benefit us mentally, physically, and emotionally. Several studies over time have shown the benefits that come along with openly practicing gratitude. People who are grateful are happier, sleep better, and even live longer. We don’t practice gratitude because we live happy lives; we live happy lives because we practice gratitude.

How it works

Neuroscience research around gratitude proves that our mental health significantly improves as we learn to consistently be grateful. Gratefulness causes our brains to release more positive neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin and lessen the presence of the stress hormone, cortisol. This can help with depression and anxiety, as well as conditions like insomnia. Stress disrupts sleep, but Psychology Today reports that just 15 minutes of writing grateful sentiments can improve our sleep quality. Our parasympathetic nervous system is activated when we are feeling grateful.

Positive Psychology surveyed 100 people and found that 65 out of the 100 said that happiness is more important than health, even though both are needed. Actively practicing gratitude can lead us to be happier and healthier people. Spending five minutes each day journaling about gratitude can increase one’s long-term well-being by more than 10%, which is about the same amount as doubling your income! These people also report better coping skills when trials arise, and they are less likely to develop conditions such as PTSD. Even after experiencing traumatic events such as 9/11 and the Vietnam War, those who actively practiced being grateful showed more mental strength and resilience while coping. Emotionally resilient people focus on solutions, staying grounded, and regulating uncomfortable situations.

Improving your mental health  

This practice of consistent gratitude can be helpful even for those with ongoing mental health issues. In 2017, UC Berkeley published a study regarding research they conducted about gratitude’s effect on mental health. Participants were divided and groups were asked to either write letters of gratitude or journal about negative experiences. They also all received regular mental health counseling throughout the study. After three weeks, the participants who journaled about gratitude showed significantly better mental health. The results were so compelling that researchers even concluded that practicing gratitude in congruence with mental health counseling was actually more beneficial than counseling alone!

Gratitude can also help with personal self-esteem as well as relationships with others. When we are grateful for what we have and who we are, we are much less likely to compare ourselves to others. Toxic emotions like envy and resentment are lessened, and happiness and empathy increase. Adolescents who regularly reported on what they were grateful for were also shown to show a decreased interest in material possessions as well as an increase in empathy. Grateful people are more able to appreciate the accomplishments of those around them, which has been proven to create stronger, longer-lasting relationships. 

How to practice gratitude

The best way to express gratitude is in whatever way feels most comfortable for you. Some people prefer to journal, some write notes to those who they are grateful for, while others practice gratefulness meditations. These sentiments can be private or shared with a friend or loved one an expressed to whomever or whatever feels most comfortable for you, such as God or the universe. It is also important to remember that sometimes gratitude is hard. Maanvi Singh of NPR recommends giving yourself grace during times like this. Whenever we’re feeling down or going through stressful times, it can be difficult to find things to be thankful for. These times could be used to reflect on the past, or jot down things that we are hopeful about for the future. We could also practice being grateful for really small things, like the fact that we woke up today, or the sunshine. Expressing gratitude doesn’t have to be limited to special life events like promotions, weddings, or new opportunities; sometimes experiencing a fresh new day is reason enough.


Bailey Huckaby contributed to this article. Bailey is enrolled in Columbia University’s Masters of Social Work program and serves as Administrative Assistant at Insight Counseling Centers.

Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed during the month of May since 1949. This year, our focus is exploring tools that can help us survive and thrive, no matter our circumstances. Adapting well during challenges and adversity is known as resilience.
 
One tool for resilience that keeps coming up in our search is the practice of gratitude. Gratitude is the acknowledgement of what we possess that we can rely on – this includes resources that are external, like friends and family, or internal, like our own character strengths. Practicing gratitude can get us unstuck when we’re in a mindset of scarcity and empower us to keep going.
 
We’ve curated resources to help you improve your mental health this month through the practice of gratitude. As always, we’re here for you. Contact us to connect with a counselor who can help you through your unique experiences.

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