The Power of Gratitude

And starting a gratitude practice.

Gratitude seems like a simple good. We express gratitude when someone helps us; we get gratitude in return when we are good to others. We respect–or even admire–those who are grateful for the smallest things in life. 

What would happen if we took time out of our days to really reflect on the things we are grateful for? As it turns out, there are a lot of amazing, proven benefits to doing just that.

The science

Studies have correlated gratitude with positive outcomes like increased mood and stronger relationships. In one study, Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, leaders in gratitude research, asked participants to write a few sentences each week, with one group writing on the things they were grateful for that week and a second writing about negative experiences from the week. A third control group was asked to write events of the week without instructions to focus on the positive or negative.

After 10 weeks, those practicing gratitude in their weekly writings had a more optimistic outlook than those in the negative group. The study also found potential physical benefits; the gratitude-focused group had fewer physician visits than their negative counterparts. 

Another study, with Dr. Joshua Brown and Dr. Joel Wong, had participants write letters of gratitude each week, without requiring that participants send the letters. The benefits to mood and outlook were impressive, consistent with prior studies. In addition, participants who did not send their letters had the same improvements as those who did. The small size of the study prevented the researchers from determining if there were any increased benefits to those who sent their letters compared to those who didn’t. However, this outcome suggests the benefits of practicing gratitude are not inherently tied to the expression of gratitude.

There are relationship benefits when you do express it, though! One study showed that when an individual expressed gratitude to their romantic partner, the grateful partner also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about the relationship. Other studies have found these social benefits as well; Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center has called gratitude “the ‘social glue’ key to building and nurturing strong relationships.”

Importantly, the Brown and Wong study focused on those with mental health concerns. This is significant; sometimes practices that improve the mental outlook of those without mental health concerns do not provide the same benefits to those with pre-existing concerns. The outcomes of the study suggest this powerful tool can be used for managing mental health symptoms and improving outcomes for struggling individuals.

Why does it work?

Emmons, mentioned above, has stated that gratitude is a two-part process: one part recognizing the good things around us, and another part understanding this goodness comes from outside us, building one’s sense of interconnectedness.

Brown and Wong found that positive outcomes were related to the lack of negative emotion words in participants’ writing rather than the inclusion of positive emotion words. They suggest that this indicates improvements were due not just to gratitude writing, but to a shift of attention. When you’re more aware of and thinking more about what you’re grateful for, you have less time or space to think about painful or toxic emotions and experiences.

Some of the benefits are physical, too; remember, Emmons’ and McCullough’s participants had fewer physician visits. Physiological effects are related to improvements in the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system. Among other things, this system helps calm your heart after intense stress. Heart failure patients in a gratitude study had improvement in heart-health indicators after eight weeks of gratitude journaling, and better improvement compared with a group who received standard health treatment. 

Prolonged stress and anxiety, and multiple mood disorders, are associated with worse health outcomes; decreasing negative symptoms as these studies may also lessen these particular factors’ effect on physical health.

How to start

It doesn’t have to take a lot to start a gratitude practice! Don’t forget: these studies have shown that taking time even once a week can create significant improvement for months at a time. Here are some suggestions for getting going:

  • Say one thing you are grateful for every night before bed. Not only will this set you up positively for rest and put you in a more positive headspace, but it is also both quick and ritualized, making it an easy habit.
  • Write a thank you letter. It doesn’t need to be long or deeply emotional. It is the writing that matters. When you focus on one individual, you may find just how much good can come from a single place. As we’ve seen, your relationship with that person may improve through your deepened awareness of their positive influence.
  • Thank yourself. Who better to form a strong relationship with first? Thanking yourself can help keep you focused on the parts of yourself that you like, especially for those who struggle with self-compassion.
  • Create a ritual with your partner or family. Schedule time, even just a few minutes that you can all settle down, and say something from the week you are thankful for. Add different themes every week to keep it fresh; one week you can focus on school/work, another talking about your friends, another specifically thanking each other, etc.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Gratitude journals are great because they produce physical volume as you go–you see your blessings pile up. You can even carry it with you to write things down in the moment. 
  • Make a gratitude jar. Each day (or throughout the day) write something you are grateful for on a small piece of paper, fold it up, and place it in a jar. Do this for a week, a month, or a year, and see how quickly it fills up! One of the best things about this is the jar itself. Take time to decorate it and transform it into something you want to look at daily. Make it a piece of your creativity, of yourself, and pour goodness into it.

So, what are you grateful for today?

If you want to start a gratitude practice in the new year, come make gratitude jars at the library on January 4th, 2023, at 6:00 PM. If you want to participate in other fun events, head over to our event page to see what’s going on, and follow us online for updates!

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