Thanksgiving is a holiday all about giving thanks (it’s right there in the name!). We hear a lot these days about the benefits of gratitude—but what does the research have to say about it?
Thankfully, all the studies seem to back up the idea that practicing gratitude has a multitude of tangible benefits on our health and happiness.
Research suggests that practicing gratitude is associated with benefits such as better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more. Gratitude, the studies suggest, can help improve our relationships with others, help us sleep better, and possibly even counteract depression or suicidal thoughts.
One 2016 study looked at the effects of gratitude expression on neural activity to see whether it had longer-term effects on brain activity. One group of participants wrote letters expressing their gratitude, while a control group did not, and after three months, both groups performed a “Pay It Forward” task in an fMRI scanner.
The researchers found that “subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.” Those who wrote letters expressing their gratitude had “significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude” than the control group.
In other words? The more they practiced being grateful, the easier it was for them to continue being grateful. This suggests that gratitude is a key element in resilience–and that, like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Think of it as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened through practice.
Gratitude is also an excellent way to practice self-regulation. A 2007 study looked at the effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. The researchers’ findings indicated that gratitude “may be a means of improving both emotion regulation and self-motivation by modulating resting-state FC in emotion and motivation-related brain regions.” By focusing on what you’re grateful for, it becomes easier to regulate yourself in times of stress and to be more intrinsically motivated.
Gratitude can even make you better at your job. A 2017 study, which looked at the effect of gratitude on the work habits of nurses, found that practicing gratitude could “enrich nurses’ management skills, enhance their networking abilities, improve their decision-making capabilities, and increase their productivity.” That’s definitely something to be grateful for!
So what does it actually look like to practice gratitude? How do we do it?
There are lots of ways to practice gratitude. One is a gratitude journal where one writes down three specific things that one is grateful for every day. “Over time,” researchers say, “this emphasis on positive thoughts influences how situations are perceived.”
A similar option is a gratitude jar, where one writes things for which one is grateful for on a slip of paper and puts them in a jar. This gives you the added benefit of being able to reach into the jar on a bad day and pull out a little bit of happiness at random.
Showing appreciation for friends, loved ones, or co-workers is another great way to practice gratitude, either in person or with a handwritten note.
Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rastputs it this way: “We have to put little stop signs into our daily life” to remind us to be grateful. So let’s make sure to make giving thanks a year-round phenomenon—not just a seasonal one!