by Maddi Butler
Published on: Nov 19, 2020
In the United States, the end of November marks the start of the holiday season for many people—a season that generally begins with Thanksgiving. Though Thanksgiving celebrations may look different this year, the message of gratitude and giving thanks is one we can incorporate year round. In fact, practicing gratitude can have lasting positive effects on mood and mental health.
Studies show that when people purposefully incorporate moments of gratitude into their daily lives, they enjoy a boost in their overall mood and happiness. Of course, it may take some time to see these benefits—which is why it’s a practice instead of an instant result.
Though it’s a relatively recent subject of study, researchers at UC Berkeley found that expressing gratitude can help people maintain relationships, encourage prosocial behavior, and even improve a workplace environment. Researchers are still trying to fully understand why the simple act of practicing gratitude has so many benefits since it’s nearly impossible to prove cause and effect in these types of studies. Positive psychology research suggests it may just be that people associate gratitude with something larger than themselves—which can ultimately magnify positive emotions and help them cherish good experiences.
It’s difficult to prove a direct connection between a concept like gratitude and a person’s quality of life when so many other things affect the latter. However, a separate UC Berkeley study found that practicing gratitude may actually change your brain regardless of outside factors. The researchers in this study found more sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that helps with learning and decision-making—three months after writing letters of gratitude. According to the researchers, this suggests a lasting positive effect and perhaps even improved mental health over time, as well as greater attentiveness to expressing gratitude.
But what does it mean to “practice” gratitude? How does one practice gratitude?
In a 2003 paper, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough define gratitude as a process rather than an emotion. The two-step process involves recognizing you have achieved a positive outcome while also recognizing that the outcome is the result of an external source’s influence. In other words, it means recognizing that something good in your life is due to someone or something else’s influence.
Basically, to practice gratitude is to appreciate what you have, whether that’s a physical possession or something less tangible like good health, a relationship, or something else.
The practice itself can take many forms, which means it’s up to the individual to find what works for them. For some, “practicing gratitude” may be as simple as scribbling down a few sentences about things they felt grateful for throughout the week. Others may find the connection to something greater than themselves through meditation or prayer. In the second Berkeley study mentioned above, participants were asked to write about gratitude, while others wrote letters of gratitude toward someone who had previously shown them kindness. The letter writers enjoyed a general increase in happiness that lasted a month, even if they didn’t end up sending the letter.
Of course, you don’t have to write lengthy letters of thanks to everyone you’ve ever met—there are other ways to express appreciation for the people and things in your life. If you feel awkward about telling someone face-to-face that you’re thankful for their impact on your life, Harvard Health Publishing suggests the following alternatives.
These actions may feel forced, but over time they can start to feel more comfortable. Over time, they can contribute to a better mental state and better relationships with those around you.