Can giving thanks make you happier? The short answer–yes.
A heartfelt “thank you” can make someone’s day, but there’s more to the story. Gratitude can benefit your own health and wellbeing, too. The practice of giving thanks is not a substitute for therapy or other interventions, especially for people with diagnosable mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. Still, studies have linked gratitude to everything from a more positive outlook to better sleep, improved physical health, and stronger relationship bonds.
Gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. According to Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading gratitude researchers, gratitude has two key components. “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness,” he wrote in an article published in Greater Good Magazine. “We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.”
Second, he writes, “We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…we acknowledge that other people…gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
This recognition can apply to your life and circumstances now, to things that have happened in the past (say, reflecting on happy memories), or in anticipation of good things to come.
A number of studies have shown an association between gratitude and happiness.
Research led by Emmons looked at the effects of gratitude, journaling, and happiness. In the study, one group was asked to record things they were grateful for, another was asked to focus on hassles or irritants in their lives, and a third group was asked to report on neutral life events. For nine weeks, participants reported their mood, physical symptoms, reactions to social support, and general wellbeing. At the end of the study, participants in the first group reported a more positive attitude, greater optimism about the future, and much more time spent exercising than the other groups.
In a follow-up study, participants increased journalling frequency from once a week to every day. At the end of this second study, participants who focused on gratitude reported feeling happier and more positive, along with an improvement in amount and quality of sleep. But it wasn’t just the subjects themselves who noticed the benefits of gratitude. Even the participants’ significant others reported a positive difference in their partners’ outlooks.
Amie M. Gordon, PhD, a social-personality psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has also found a link between gratitude and stronger relationships. In a 2012 study, she and her fellow researchers concluded that people who felt more appreciated by their romantic partners were more appreciative of their partners themselves. The positive cycle of gratitude made participants more receptive to their partners’ needs and fostered strong bonds of commitment within their relationships.
Gratitude may not come naturally. When you’re having a bad day or dealing with stress or anxiety, being thankful can be challenging. Having a gratitude practice can help train your mind to identify and appreciate the positive aspects of your life. Here are some expert-recommended ways to cultivate a grateful mindset.
The simple act of writing about what you’re thankful for on a daily or even weekly basis is enough to help you develop a more positive outlook. For this practice, Emmons recommends noting things from your past, present, and future. A gratitude journal can be especially useful when you focus on specific people you’re grateful to have—or have had—in your life.
Challenges and frustrations–which can sometimes make it hard to feel grateful– are unavoidable. M. J. Ryan, an executive coach and author of Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life, recommends reframing your mind when faced with difficult situations.
“When difficult things happen, ask yourself: What’s right about this? Yes, it’s awful, but if something were right about it, what would it be? Look for the hidden blessings in challenges. How have you grown?”
According to a study by researchers at Loyola University Chicago, taking a daily “savoring walk” in which you take the time to appreciate your surroundings can also contribute to our happiness. This is a 20-minute weekly walk by yourself, ideally via a different route each time. The idea is to pay close attention during the walk to as many positive sights, sounds, smells, or other sensations as possible.
In the study, participants who took a savoring walk every day for a week reported a surge in their overall happiness. The practice helped them notice the good things in their everyday environments and lives, creating a more positive overall outlook.
You can incorporate a savoring walk into your morning or evening commute to work, or find opportunities to walk to a nearby destination where you might usually drive, such as running an errand, grabbing coffee, or meeting up with friends.
Another effective way to practice gratitude is to write a letter to someone who’s had a positive impact on your life, according to research led by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman, PhD. Consider writing to someone you may not have taken the time to fully thank. Try writing about both big-picture and specific things this person has done and how their actions have helped you. The letter should be roughly one page long, or about 300 words. Researchers encourage reading the letter to your recipient in person, if possible. Research shows that the practice of writing a gratitude letter can have a positive impact on your wellbeing for several weeks.
Ryan recommends weaving a gratitude practice into your everyday life, such as when you’re driving home from work, around the dinner table with your family, or before going to sleep.
“Create visual or auditory reminders—a sign, a popup on your computer, or reminders sent to your cell phone,” she says. “The more you create a routine, the easier it will be to remember.”
Gratitude can help you pinpoint and notice positive aspects of your life, even when things don’t seem to be going your way. Practicing gratitude regularly can make you happier and even strengthen connections with your partner, family, and friends.
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The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.