Can expressing gratitude make you healthier? Science says yes.
Being thankful is good for your body and your brain. Here’s how to cultivate an attitude of gratitude that lasts all year long.
Thanksgiving is a natural time to count your blessings. (It’s right there in the name, after all.) Maybe you have a family ritual of going around the dinner table to share the reasons you’re thankful. Or maybe you take time out to volunteer or send notes of appreciation to loved ones near and far.
Practicing gratitude, though, is something well worth doing year-round.
Research indicates that taking time to appreciate the positive on a regular basis can improve the quality of your life and your mental and physical health. It may even lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression, suggests a 2020 review of studies by Ohio State University researchers.
People who practice gratitude are often more fulfilled in their personal and work relationships, too, says Linda Roszak Burton. She’s an executive coach and author of Gratitude Heals.
What could be better than feeling happy, healthy and whole? Here’s what gratitude is all about — and how to create your own practice.
(Something else to be positive about? How much we can help you save on the prescription medications you need most.)
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is more than just saying thanks. It also involves thought and meaning.
In a nutshell, it’s a way to experience and show appreciation. You first recognize that something positive has happened. Then you either express appreciation to someone or reflect on that appreciation privately. It depends on the situation.
There’s a difference between spontaneous gratitude (say, the feeling you get when a neighbor shovels your car out of the snow) and a gratitude practice that you consciously cultivate, says Roszak Burton.
“Practicing gratitude strengthens your ability to see and appreciate the good in life,” says Jane Taylor Wilson, PhD. She’s an emerita professor of education at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, who specializes in gratitude and learning motivation.
That can be done by taking time throughout the day to notice the good. But you also should jump on opportunities to thank others, too.
The benefits of gratitude
It’s probably not a surprise to hear that people who are more grateful are happier. After all, what is appreciated appreciates. When you focus on the good things in your life, it can make you feel less pessimistic. And expressing gratitude helps people enjoy the good times more and deal with adversity.
But gratitude isn’t just about happiness. It may even help your health, too.
In general, people who are more grateful report having fewer physical problems such as headaches and stomach issues. And it may even help you sleep sounder and boost your heart health. For example, a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who practiced gratitude for just 2 weeks lowered their blood pressure compared to those who didn’t.
How does it work? The jury is still out. But many factors are likely at play.
First is the mind-body connection. The same way that being overly worried can give you a “nervous stomach” or high levels of stress can cause a headache, practicing gratitude has a physical impact on the body. Being more optimistic can also help you stick with healthier habits. And gratitude can even strengthen your social support network.
(If you find it hard to feel joy or you just need someone to talk to, consider the 6 reasons to try virtual therapy now.)
How to practice gratitude
Being grateful isn’t always easy during tough times. But that’s often when you need it the most.
“Practicing gratitude isn’t about denying negative events,” Roszak Burton says. Instead, it can help you heal from the bad memories that can arise from negative experiences, she says.
To make practicing gratitude a part of your life, make room for it in your routine. Think about places or times that it would be a natural fit (rather than being just another to-do).
Here are some ways to practice gratitude throughout the day:
- Before getting out of bed in the morning, think about a few things you’re looking forward to doing that day. It could be as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee, Wilson says.
- End your day by journaling about or reflecting on 3 things you were grateful for that day.
- Start a gratitude jar where you drop in folded notes about things that made you feel grateful. This can be a great activity for the whole family, too. At the end of the week, you can read all the notes.
- Write letters or notes to thank people in your life for something they’ve done for you or something you appreciate about them.
- You can also try bringing gratitude to work. If you’re a manager, you might ask your team members to share something helpful that someone did for them at work, Roszak Burton says.
Having trouble getting into the swing of it? Try creating reminders for yourself. You can set calendar alerts on your phone or put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror. You also can leave a gratitude journal in a place where you’ll always see it.
No matter how, or how often, you practice gratitude, know that you’re doing something positive for both your mind and body.
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Gratitude and mental health: Journal of Happiness Studies (2021). “Gratitude Interventions: Effective Self-help? A Meta-analysis of the Impact on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety”
How an attitude of gratitude may impact sleep and biomarkers of health: Journal of Health Psychology (2016). “The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep”