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.
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.
Below are 3 easy strategies to increase your gratitude:
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.