Gratitude - Dr. Axe

What’s one simple way to be happier? Find more things in your life to be grateful for and practice gratitude.

Gratitude is linked to not only reduced risk for depression and anxiety, but also a boost in overall well-being, kindness, relationship satisfaction and physical health markers, too.

What Is Gratitude?

What does gratitude really mean? Gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful.”

It means having a readiness to show appreciation for something and the ability to express it. The word gratitude itself is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness or gratefulness.

Is gratitude an emotion? It’s considered to be a temporary feeling/emotion, a mood, a personality trait, as well as a practice.

Due to factors like how genetics influences one’s personality, some people are thought to experience more gratitude naturally, while others have to work a bit harder at it.

According to psychologists, the “social emotion” of gratitude can have many benefits — such as helping to strengthen relationships, self-esteem and overall mental health. It can help people feel happier and defend against loneliness, jealousy and other negative emotions.

Anthropologists believe that gratitude has roots in evolutionary history. It helped humans survive by bonding with others in their social circles, encouraging helping others and being helped in return.

Recent studies have demonstrated that when someone feels grateful, specific regions in the brain become more activated. This includes parts of the prefrontal cortex that allow for reflection and heighten sensitivity when imagining future experiences.

Top 5 Benefits of Gratitude

Based on recent research, here are some of the main benefits of gratitude:

1. Protects Against Depression and Boosts Happiness

In one review published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, when researchers investigated the connection between gratitude and human health in over 50 studies, they found that gratitude is associated with higher levels of emotional and social well-being and more experiences of positive emotional states, such as happiness, life satisfaction and flourishing.

As one article describes this phenomenon:

Studies show that practicing gratitude curbs the use of words expressing negative emotions and shifts inner attention away from such negative emotions such as resentment and envy, minimizing the possibility of ruminating, which is a hallmark of depression.

According to recent research, delivering a letter of gratitude to someone who was never properly thanked for his or her kindness led to participants immediately experiencing a significant increase in happiness scores that lasted for weeks, more so than any other intervention.

In another study, when college students receiving counseling services were assigned to either a group that was instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks or to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences, those participants who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.

Researchers concluded that this data, as well as evidence from other studies, suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial for those struggling with mental health concerns such as depression, even if they already receive psychological counseling.

2. Reduces Stress and Anxiety

People who make an effort to be more appreciative seem to do better at dealing with adversity and facing tough decisions or situations because they focus on the positives and see challenges as useful lessons and even gifts, rather than as curses.

According to an ongoing 2020 study focused on helping health care providers battling COVID-19, it’s believed that an approach called “Strength-Focused and Meaning-Oriented Approach to Resilience and Transformation” — which includes mindfulness and gratitude exercises — may be one of the most effective at improving emotional flexibility, coping skills and outlook.

Data overall suggests a gratitude practice can increase psychological resilience against chronic stress, anxiety symptoms, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and unhappiness. When reflecting on the positive elements of the past and present, people are more prone to being hopeful and optimistic about the future.

3. Improves Relationships

Expressing gratitude often makes people feel more connected to something bigger than themselves. Being thankful for your life also makes it less likely that you’ll experience envy, cynicism and narcissism, which can all damage relationships and decrease happiness.

You’re more likely to pay good feelings forward when you feel more grateful —such as by showing more compassion, patience and generosity — plus gratitude tends to encourage more volunteering and prosocial behaviors.

Couples who show appreciation for one another also seem to benefit from better communication overall, including the ability to work through conflicts, according to certain studies.

Thankfulness also tends to make people better family members, spouses, students and employees. A 2016 study found that keeping a gratitude diary increased students’ sense of belonging among other students.

Other studies have found that expressions of gratitude by managers tend to motivate employees to be more productive at work due to feeling more seen and appreciated.

4. Helps Encourage Healthier Choices/Self-Care

There’s evidence suggesting that gratitude interventions can have long-lasting positive effects when it comes to promoting healthy choices — such as eating a nutrient-dense diet, exercising, sleeping enough, staying on top of school and work-related tasks, and so on. When you feel grateful for your life and the relationships in it, you’re more likely to take better care of yourself so you can show up as your “best self.”

In one study, after 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also reported exercising more and having fewer visits to physicians compared to those who focused on sources of aggravation in their lives.

5. Can Help Improve Sleep and Physical Health

In studies, gratitude has been shown to foster both physical and psychological health, meaning it may help decrease chronic pain, tension, fatigue, sleep issues like insomnia and other symptoms tied to stress/depression.

Overall, research suggests that grateful people are less prone to experiencing sleep troubles tied to stress and may also benefit from having stronger immune systems. One study even found that gratitude journaling may improve biomarkers related to heart failure morbidity, such as reduced inflammation.

How to Practice Gratitude

While it’s technically a feeling/emotion, cultivating more gratitude can be thought of as a practice. In order to boost thankfulness in your life, it’s important to actually make it by a habit by making a conscious efforts to “count one’s blessings” more often by looking for the positives in your life.

How do you practice gratitude? You can do so by:

  • keeping a gratitude journal (writing down several things daily that you’re thankful for)
  • expressing your appreciation to others in your life, such as by writing letters/emails or complimenting them
  • praying and meditating to practice being more mindful/present and optimistic
  • simply making an effort to bring things to mind each day that make you feel warm and happy

What are some of the people, places and things in your life that you can focus on in order to feel more grateful? Try bringing to mind:

  • your relationships with loved ones, such as family
  • your connection to friends
  • your support from your employer and colleagues
  • your connection to nature and animals
  • your health and physical abilities

Why It’s Important

Why is gratitude important? Here’s how gratitude can contribute to overall well-being, with help from some popular gratitude quotes:

  • “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” — Harvard Health Publishing
  • “What I’ve come to realize is that no matter the state or quality of our lives, whatever outcomes we’ve produced, goals we’ve reached (or failed to reach), what decisions we’ve made, and where we’ve ended up, has almost everything to do with focus. While some things might be out of our control, much of what happens based on our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, are largely a conditional response to our focus…I’m grateful for the air that I breathe, for the heart beating blood in my chest, for the organs in my body, for every living cell and fiber that are functioning towards my survival, I am grateful. We forget about those things from time to time. Until of course these things come into jeopardy.” — Wanderlust Worker
  • “Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools for increasing happiness. Research shows it is the single most powerful method of increasing happiness. Having an attitude of gratitude doesn’t cost any money. It doesn’t take much time. But the benefits of gratitude are enormous…it touches on many aspects of our lives. Our emotions. Personality. Social dynamics. Career success and health. All of these can contribute to increasing our basic happiness.”— Happier Human

How is gratitude related to positivity?

Positivity is defined as “the practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.” It goes hand in hand with gratitude because both help you see the world in a positive light and focus less on the negative.

It’s been shown that a gratitude practice can become a habit that encourages more positivity overall. As the saying goes, “neurons that fire together wire together,” so every time you practice pointing out the good in your life, you’re more likely to feel thankful in the future.

What Happens When It Fails?

If you’re not often in a thankful frame of mind, this can wind up taking a toll on your physical and mental health. People who feel less grateful overall are more prone to experiencing problems such as:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Symptoms tied to stress
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic pain and tension

This may be true because a lack of gratitude can lead to envy, jealousy and low self-esteem due to feeling like your life and your accomplishments are never good enough. The opposite of gratitude can be described as condemnation, thanklessness and ungratefulness — all of which can lead to a life that feels less rich, meaningful and motivating.

Conclusion

  • Gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful.” Why is gratitude important? It helps boost happiness, positively, self-esteem, relationships and self-care.
  • Research shows that being grateful can protect against issues such as depression, envy, anxiety, insomnia, pain and relationship issues.
  • Here’s how to practice gratitude: Keep a journal/diary of some “little joys of daily life,” write down “three good things” that happened, write letters of appreciation to others or compliment people more, and imagine what your life would be like without daily comforts or special people.