Giving Thanks Can Boost Our Health & Happiness
Studies show that practicing gratitude regularly can help us feel better — mind, body, and soul. But how, exactly? Keep reading to discover the benefits of giving thanks. Plus, learn 5 ways to cultivate gratitude during times of stress.
I have a friend who is a devoted thank-you note writer. Soon after receiving a gift or other kind gesture from a friend or family member, she sends a thoughtful note by mail to express her appreciation. Her thank-you messages always mention something unique about the gift or gesture that was meaningful to her. In our increasingly digital world, it’s a delight whenever I find her handwritten letters and cards in wax-sealed envelopes in my mailbox.
Naturally, it can be uplifting to be the recipient of someone’s gratitude. Many studies have shown that gratitude can have a positive impact on the people who practice it, too. In fact, when practiced regularly, expressing gratitude may improve both our physical health and our mental well-being.
“I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, poet, and philosopher
Psychologist Robert Emmons, Ph.D., is a scientific expert on gratitude. In his research, Emmons observed that people who consistently expressed their gratitude reported a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. These included a stronger immune system, feeling more optimistic, and having more compassion.
Other reported benefits of practicing gratitude include:
- Enhancing quality of sleep
- Lowering blood pressure
- Reducing anxiety & depression
- Decreasing inflammation
- Strengthening stress resistance
- Improving resiliency when coping with adversities
Being grateful may even have a lasting influence on our brain activity, training the brain “to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line,” wrote Joshua Brown and Joel Wong in Greater Good Magazine.
And the merits of gratitude don’t end at health benefits. It can also be a meaningful form of personal expression, so everyone can show their thanks in ways that resonate best with them. It might take the form of quiet, inner reflection like meditation, prayer, hiking, or journaling. Or it could be a tangible form of expression that you share with another person, such as a hug, a poem, a knitted scarf, tomatoes from your garden, or another thoughtful act.
How to Cultivate Gratitude During Times of Stress
It can be hard to feel grateful in difficult times, especially when we are feeling sad, worried, tired, or overwhelmed. But taking a few moments to reflect on things we appreciate can shift our attention to the present moment, encourage mindfulness, and even promote a sense of well-being. Research shows that expressing and feeling gratitude releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
There are a variety of ways to cultivate and express gratitude while navigating difficult experiences. Keeping a daily "gratitude jar" helped one woman during a period of grief and transition.
Try one of these 5 simple gratitude practices to help set the tone for your day or to help you unwind in the evening:
1. Strike a pose.
Did you know that yoga poses can help inspire feelings of gratitude? Even simple yoga poses like the child’s pose, resting pose, and mountain pose can do the job. This article shares the benefits of 8 different yoga poses for gratitude.
2. Write it down.
Keep a daily appreciation journal. Expressing your thoughts on paper can be a powerful way to record the moments in your life for which you feel grateful. Your entries can be about anything that sparks joy, amazement, laughter, curiosity, or peace that day. It could be something beautiful you observed on your drive home, a kind gesture from a stranger, or a funny story your friend shared with you.
Need some inspiration? In 2016, poet and essayist Ross Gay decided to spend a year writing a daily essay about something that delighted him. These delights included even small and ordinary things. Gay’s essays are now collected in “The Book of Delights,” a New York Times bestseller. Hear Gay discuss his book in this interview with NPR.
There’s an App for That
Not a fan of traditional writing tools? Try capturing your thoughts with a gratitude journal app. PositivePsychology.com shares 11 apps to help cultivate gratitude at your fingertips.
3. Meditate on it.
Research shows that practicing meditation has mental and physical health benefits, just like practicing gratitude does. So, why not combine the two?
Gratitude meditation does just that. Headspace, a mindfulness app, defines gratitude meditation as the practice of reflecting on things we are grateful for in our lives, large or small.
If you practice gratitude meditation consistently, it may easily become a part of your daily routine. All you need is some quiet time and the intention to reflect. You can follow a guided gratitude meditation exercise or design one of your own. Your meditation can last one minute, or 10 minutes. Customize your practice as often as you like.
4. Recite a mantra.
Having a short gratitude mantra in your mind can be handy when you need to quickly shift your focus away from stressful thoughts. Search for gratitude affirmations online (there are many) and pick one that works for you. Or create a mantra of your own that is personally meaningful. Then, anytime you need to hear it, say your mantra silently or out loud. You can even collect a mix of gratitude mantras for different situations.
“This is a wonderful day. I have never seen this one before.”
— Maya Angelou, American memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist
5. Go for a stroll.
We have all heard about the physical and mental health benefits of walking, from lowering blood pressure to strengthening the immune system and boosting our mood. But have you heard of gratitude walking?
The practice combines the health benefits of walking “with the merits of cultivating gratitude,” writes Noma Nazish in this Forbes.com article. “The term gratitude walk essentially means walking with a calm, grateful state of mind.”
If you’d like to try gratitude walking, but don’t know how to start, Grateful.org offers some helpful tips and suggestions.
Editor's Note: This blog was originally published in November 2022 and has been updated.
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.