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The Mental Health Benefits of an Attitude of Gratitude

With the holiday season upon us, opportunities abound to practice gratefulness. The holidays can be a time when we slow down and appreciate our blessings.

But is practicing gratitude worth the trouble? We may wonder if we have much to be grateful for during this rough time. We all experience our own struggles. Symptoms of depression, mood changes in bipolar, and losses around the holidays can cause our attitudes to become more bleak, irritable, and pessimistic.

Many of us have experienced hardship, and COVID-19 has not made life any easier. We all have struggles. Hardships such as a lack of finances, changes in work expectations, and more amplify our negative attitudes. For some, maybe it looks like increases in feelings of depression or anxiety. These feelings can be exacerbated by uncertain circumstances. Still others are experiencing grief after losing loved ones to the COVID-19 virus.

It's easy to complain, and sometimes, it's a lot easier to see the bad than to see the good. The good news is, there are multiple benefits to practicing gratefulness, and they are worth taking a look at before you write off the practice as trivial.

Gratitude encompasses many aspects, but let's look at the following clinical definition:

Gratitude: the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation (Sansone, 2010).'

Practicing gratitude then involves taking time to appreciate the components and things in our lives that are valuable. There are multiple ways to do this. For example, we can say or write down what we are thankful for. Other times the practice of gratitude might involve using a new gift that we are thankful for or doing something kind for someone we appreciate.

Practicing gratefulness helps improve multiple aspects of our health (including our mental health)

The benefits of gratitude are backed up by the research. Researchers have conducted lots of studies that look at the benefits of thankfulness.

It can have benefits to both physical and mental health. For example, UC Davis Health notes that gratefulness can help improve our immunity, lower blood pressure, and help us sleep better. Grateful people also tend to develop other positive health habits, such as exercising more and not smoking (UC Davis Health, 2015).

Practicing gratitude can help your mental health and well-being. Taking time to be grateful can help improve happiness and life satisfaction; it can also help to decrease our negative emotions and depressive symptoms. Here are a few highlights of the research in this area:

  • From Frontiers in Psychology, researchers conducted a clinical trial where participants made a list of things that they were grateful for that happened throughout the day for 14 days. The result? The activity was associated with increases in subjective happiness, life satisfaction, and positive affect. Participants also experienced decreases in negative affect and depressive symptoms.

  • Also, from Frontiers in Psychology, researchers examined two longitudinal studies. They noted that the link between gratitude and life satisfaction works both ways. Increased gratitude helps lead to increased life satisfaction, and increased life satisfaction leads to increases in gratitude.

  • From the Journal of Medical Internet Research: Researchers did a study examining the benefit of practicing gratitude among healthcare workers. They had participants write a letter expressing gratitude to a person who impacted their lives. Some participants focused specifically on the letter's recipient. Others focused on the benefits they had personally experienced because of the recipient. They found that both groups reported lower levels of emotional exhaustion, higher levels of happiness, and improved work-life balance after the one-week follow-up.

  • From Qualitative Health Research: A meta-narrative literature review found that practicing gratitude is associated with reduction of psychological stress and improvement in social support. Among healthcare workers, they found that practicing gratitude was associated with increased job satisfaction and teamwork.

So, it seems like practicing a little gratitude might be worth it. But what does that look like? The methods of practicing gratefulness vary, but you can find a plan that works for you to incorporate thankfulness into your everyday life.

How you can practice gratefulness

You don't have to practice gratefulness for extensive periods to reap the benefits. Even taking time to be thankful for a few minutes each day can be helpful. How to do this will be different for everyone, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Write a letter to someone who has impacted you and helped you in your life. You can emphasize both this person's qualities and how this person has helped you in your life (Berkland, 2017).

  • Create a gratitude jar. Keep a jar, slips of paper, and writing utensils together in a place where the whole family can have easy access. Write down things that happened that you are thankful for and put them in the jar. You can talk with your family and set up a time where you will go through all the slips of paper, such as at the end of the year or month (Sood, 2021).

  • Give yourself thankfulness reminders. Keep reminders of what you are thankful for in places where you will see them often. For example, keep photos of family members on the fridge. You can also keep inspirational quotes in areas where you'll see them, and they can remind you to be thankful (Sood, 2021).

  • Keep a Journal. Write down a certain number of things that you are thankful for daily. You can keep this number as small or as large as you want. The key is to be consistent and look for the good things in your life

  • Pray. Take time to thank God on a daily basis or throughout your day. For those in religious communities, the concept of thankfulness is closely tied to focusing your attention on a higher power such as God and specifically expressing thankfulness to God. For example, those in the Christian community believe that God is the ultimate giver of all good gifts. So they believe that they can thank God for the good that happens in their lives.

(Harvard Health, 2021 & UC Davis Health, 2015).

Why does it work?

Experts have theorized about why gratitude has so many health benefits associated with it. Those in religious circles have ideas as well. While it isn't an exhaustive list of why, gratitude helps us

  • Recognize the good things happening in our lives and focus on these things.

  • Shift our focus outside ourselves such as to higher power and other people.

  • Build stronger relationships with the people around us, such as when we express thankfulness for what people have done for us.

  • Foster positive emotions and deflect negative emotions like envy.

(Harvard Health & UC Davis Health).

Anyone can take the time to practice a little gratitude. The exciting part is that the practice offers multiple benefits for performing a relatively simple activity. What do we have to lose?

So, maybe this holiday season, you'll take a little time to be grateful. It just might make your holidays that much better.


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