Science of Gratitude

GRATITUDE is more than just an experience of feeling thankful for what you have. It is actually now considered a viable holistic and alternative therapy practice that is truly effective for uplifting the mood. Having a “gratitude practice,” or intentionally “counting your blessings” has been associated with a number of psychological and physical benefits.

As compared with other forms of writing, gratitude journaling has been measurably shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and have profound effects on boosting mental health.  Scientists who study gratitude journaling theorize that the practice works through detaching from negative words and emotions and practicing thinking / saying positive emotion words. Moreover, studies show that it is not the abundance of positive words itself, but the use of less or no negative words and emotions as well as not ruminating on negative experiences that can support these effects.  

Studies even show that having an active gratitude practice of jotting down 3 things you’re grateful for on a daily basis can reduce symptoms of depression within as little as several weeks!  As Harvard health article suggests, “Expressing thanks may be one of the simplest ways to feel better.”

Gratitude researcher Susan Thompson echoes this sentiment, “If there were a drug that did that, whoever patented that drug would be rich.  Gratitude is very powerful.” Thompson also suggests that gratitude replenishes willpower and therefore can prevent one from overeating.  This finding aligns with research gathered from Northeastern University, which shows that gratitude can make you more patient and better able to make sensible decisions as compared with people who do not express feeling very grateful on a day-to-day basis.  Similar to the Northeastern study, Thompson suggests that gratitude can heighten impulse control, helping you slow down and make better and more effective decisions. A gratitude practice in this context can help you “clear your mind and reset.”

The Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology suggests that gratitude can also strengthen your relationships, particularly with your intimate partner.  Gratitude can lead to overall relationship satisfaction and deepen your romantic connection, as well as make you feel more comfortable expressing your concerns in the relationship to your partner.  The Journal of Personality and Individual Differences equates having gratitude with taking adequate measures of self-care and promoting one’s own well-being. It suggests that “giving thanks helps people appreciate and care for their bodies.”  In the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, it suggests that gratitude can also help you sleep better at night by perhaps soothing the nervous system.

Conceptually, gratitude helps you connect to something larger than and outside of yourself -- whether it’s another human being, a place, or an experience.  This helps people to experience more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.  

The research of psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami reveals that participants who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.  This also had a ripple effect in other areas of their lives -- they exercised more and had fewer physical health concerns. The research of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, compared gratitude journaling with other various positive psychology interventions and found that ultimately it was significantly more effective and had longer-lasting results in patients, leading to more sustained happiness for up to a month after the study.  

Like the other alternative therapies listed so far, gratitude is a mindset that can be cultivated through practices like saying thank you, counting your blessings, creating a daily gratitude journal, writing gratitude letters to others, prayer, and meditation.