Thankful hands

Gratitude's Positive Effects on Mental Health

Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful.  It is the ability to recognize and appreciate the positive aspects of life around us. We can be grateful for the big positive things in our lives – such as good health, or a roof over our head. But we can also be grateful for the small things in our lives – such as a hot cup of coffee or tea on a cold morning, the first snowfall of the season, or a quick text exchange with a friend.

It turns out that gratitude is pretty powerful. Gratitude is associated with a number of positive mental health outcomes, including less depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Grateful people sleep better, have stronger relationships, and have better overall life satisfaction and psychological well-being.

How does gratitude predict so many positive mental health benefits? Some theories suggest that the positive emotion of gratitude provides a buffer for individuals as they experience stress. When we feel negative emotions such as anxiety or depression, our emotional and behavioral repertoire narrows. Stress tends to make us revert to our old, well-practiced, and often maladaptive responses – we feel overwhelmed and then withdraw or get irritable.

But when we feel positive emotions such as gratitude, our emotional and behavioral repertoire broadens. We are more able to access a wide range of thoughts and behaviors in response to life events.  We can consider responses to stress beyond withdrawal or irritability; we can consider reaching out for social support, actively solving the problem, or thinking about it in a different and more constructive way.

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Thus, one way that gratitude might lead to more positive mental health outcomes is that gratitude helps us cope with stress more adaptively.

I’ve been studying the effects of gratitude on mental health among adolescents and young adults over the last few years. In a recent study, we examined this hypothesis. We selected individuals high and low in gratitude and then followed them daily for a week to examine how they responded to daily stressful events. Participants were asked 6 times each day to report on something stressful that had happened to them, and what kind of coping strategies they had used. What did we find? That higher gratitude adolescents and young adults reported higher daily positive emotions, lower daily negative emotions, and were able to use more adaptive coping strategies when stressed. In particular, gratitude predicted more seeking of social support and greater problem solving in response to stressful events.

With the holiday season upon us, harnessing the power of gratitude may give all of us greater capacity to cope with stress. The amazing thing about gratitude is that it is a skill we can all learn. Study after study has shown that we can build our capacity to be grateful by practicing gratitude regularly.

How can you cultivate gratitude?  

Below are 3 easy strategies to increase your gratitude:

  • Keep a daily gratitude journal. You can go old-school and get a hard copy journal, or go high-tech with a mobile app such as Happyfeed. Each day write down 3 things you are grateful for before you go to bed.
  • Gratitude jar. Keep a jar and small slips of paper someplace handy (the kitchen table or nightstand works well). Once a day, grab a slip of paper and write down the date and 1 thing you’re grateful for. Every month or so reach in and grab a few to read back to yourself.
  • Do a gratitude activity at a holiday table this year. My family has a longstanding tradition of decorating our Thanksgiving table with cut-out “thankful hands”. We take colored paper, trace our hands, cut them out, and then write on each hand something we are grateful for this year. Each person does 10-15 and we scatter them across the table. As we sit down to dinner, each person reads the hands closest to them out loud for all to enjoy.

When we are feeling down, anxious, or stressed, it is easy for our brains to focus on the negatives in our lives. But by actively practicing gratitude, we can literally retrain our brains to start focusing on the positives instead. This will help us cope with stress better and improve our mental health.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!
November 25, 2020
Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is Professor Emeritus at Seattle Pacific University, where she previously chaired the Clinical Psychology PhD program and continues to supervise doctoral trainees.

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