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Show Gratitude for your Mental Health

Gratitude is the simple act of being thankful, showing appreciation for the people and events in your life that make you who you are.

Gratitude

Gratitude is the simple act of being thankful, showing appreciation for the people and events in your life that make you who you are. Gratitude isn’t an emotion; it’s an action. It requires effort and must be done regularly for greatest benefit, but it works. Recent research has provided some amazing evidence about how making a habit of expressing gratitude can be one of the best things for your own mental health.

The Research

A multitude of recent studies have provided evidence that actively showing gratitude can have a multitude of well-being supporting effects. In one recently published clinical trial, researchers recruited 293 young adults who reported having mental concerns to investigate how writing letters of gratitude may influence their mental health (1). Participants were randomly assigned into three groups: a control group that started weekly counseling, and trial groups that supplemented counseling with either writing a weekly letter of gratitude or a letter expressing their deepest thoughts about negative experiences. The intervention lasted a total of three weeks, with all participants reporting their mental health conditions weekly and then four and 12 weeks following the completion of the interventions. While those in the control group and those who wrote about negative experiences reported only slightly improved mental health, those who wrote letters of gratitude reported significant improvements during the trial and at each of the follow-ups. 

The researchers suggested that these findings may be the result of four mechanisms:

1. Releasing toxic emotions

In analyzing the letters written by both trial groups, researchers noticed that those who wrote letters of gratitude used “we” (first-person plural words) far more often. The researchers believe that expressing gratitude helps you shift your focus away from egocentric and toxic thoughts. It’s much easier to release thoughts associated with negative events while you are expressing gratitude for others.

2. Internalizing

The participants who wrote letters of gratitude were told they did not have to send them, and less than 1 out of 4 did, but that did not seem to reduce the benefits. This suggests that you don’t necessarily need to share your gratitude to improve your mental well-being, all you have to do is focus your thoughts on all that you are thankful for.

3. Time Heals.

One of the more interesting findings was that the mental health of those in the gratitude-writing group increased progressively over time, and was the best at the 12-week follow-up. Showing gratitude seems to have a (positive) snowball effect. Showing gratitude regularly over time makes you more grateful. You may not experience immediate improvements, but keep at it and you will feel better each day.

4. Changing the Brain.

At the 12-week follow-up, researchers analyzed the brains of the participants using fMRI, and the results were astounding. The participants took part in a “pay it forward” task, where they were given money and asked to pass it on to a worthy cause/person if they felt grateful. Then, all participants filled out a survey regarding their motivation to give, specifically if they did so primarily out of guilt. The participants were connected to an fMRI scanner throughout the entire activity. What they found was that those in the gratitude trial group not only gave more and did so without being motivated by guilt (as much), but also experienced greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain intricately involved in decision-making and learning. This phenomenon, which had been shown in other previous studies, suggests that expressing gratitude may have long-lasting (remember, this was 12-weeks after the end of the trial) effects on how your brain responds to opportunities to help others and also facilitate improved decision-making, resilience to stress, and emotional regulation (2).

How to Show Gratitude Daily

Regularly showing gratitude makes it easier to be thankful for what you have and may even fundamentally change how your brain responds to input, making you better at regulating your emotions. The key is to find ways to show gratitude every day.

Keep a Journal

Just like writing letters of gratitude, writing your own thoughts down in a journal can help rewire your brain to better manage your mood. Read your gratitude journal entries when you need a pick-me-up.

Talk

Next time you feel like showing gratitude to someone, don’t pick up your phone or get on email, physically tell them. It will not only make you feel better, but start the gratitude snowball effect in them as well.

Be Mindful

Mindful practices have been shown to have countless benefits for your mental health (4). Set apart a few moments of your day, every day, to focus only on your breath and refocus.

Do for Others

Voluntarily helping others is one of the most effective ways to show gratitude, and improve your own mental health (5). Make it a habit to do things for others, so you can feel better about yourself.

References

1

Gratitude Writing and Mental Health

Wong J., et al. 

4

Mindfulness and Psychological Health

Keng S. et al.

2

Neural Basis of Human Social Values

Zahn R., et al.

3

Gratitude and Well-Being

Sansone R. and Sansone L. 

5

Health Benefits of Volunteering

Yeung J., et al.