The effect of gratitude

Now don’t roll your eyes yet. I know. I can hear a parent’s voice in my ear saying I should be grateful for what I have, but I’m not here to talk about what you “should” do. I’m here to talk about science, mental health, therapy, and a path through this dark winter that could be a lifeline for some. Like to hear about it? Here we go.

I’ll start with a personal story. Early in my personal therapy journey I was really struggling and my mentor at the time gave me a homework assignment. She asked me to write down 10 things I was grateful for, specifically about the person I was struggling with.

Let me just tell you, I was so mad at her for that!! I could think of just ONE thing I was grateful for about this person and it was so tiny, so insignificant that it barely amounted to anything. She had me practice this act of gratitude daily and MAN, DID I HATE IT. But eventually it grew on me. She was smart. She didn’t tell me to go research it, she just made me DO it. And it changed something in me. 

You may think that is (to quote my kid’s favorite Lego movie line) “a buncha hippy dippy bologna”. And you might be right, but I always like to bring the science (and the receipts aka the research to back it up), so here we go.

Gratitude has psychological benefits

Think happy, be happy? Um. I’m usually a skeptic, but I particularly like this quote from author Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA who wrote this article.

One study by a couple of American researchers assigned young adults to keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). They assigned other groups to journal about things that annoyed them or reasons why they were better off than others. The young adults assigned to keep gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other groups.

Dr. Korb went on to write an entire book about the practice of gratitude. 

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. It’s an interesting read if you want to learn more.

Gratitude has physical benefits

Not only does gratitude literally change the brain, but it also changes a person’s health. Even when their health is failing. This study in particular caught my attention. These are patients who are suffering from heart failure.

“In sum, we report that gratitude and spiritual wellbeing are related to better mood and sleep, less fatigue, and more self-efficacy”

It changed what the study participants thought they were capable of doing while suffering from heart failure. They got better sleep and were less tired. That may not sound like a lot to some, but knowing the body is failing and still having a positive outlook on life is powerful.

Gratitude changes how we see life

The study quoted below had participants write a gratitude list for 14 days and then see what had changed, compared to the control group.

“The gratitude intervention managed to increase positive affect, subjective happiness and life satisfaction, and reduce negative affect and depression symptoms. This change was greater than the changes in the control groups in relation to positive affect.”

An increase in life satisfaction. In just 2 weeks of practicing gratitude.

There is so much research around gratitude that it would literally fill pages and pages of this blog. So I’m going to keep it short and give you just a few links to dive deeper into this topic if you like.

How do I practice gratitude?

It sounds harder than it is. It can start with simply keeping a list of things that you appreciate. Look for the good. No matter how small. Write it down and keep an eye out for it during your day. It is amazing the change that even one little step toward gratitude can create.

Struggling with finding anything to be grateful for? Connect with others and become part of a community of people seeking health and healing. Check out our groups.

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