Jotting every little thing you’re thankful for into a gratitude journal may feel a little “woo woo,” but there are some science-supported health benefits to acknowledging your appreciation for whatever it is you find meaningful in your life—whether that’s a delicious sandwich or a healthy bond with a loved one.
But what exactly is gratitude? Keep reading to explore what it means to be grateful, plus research-backed connections between gratitude and mental health, tips for practicing gratitude and what to do when gratitude doesn’t feel like enough on its own.
What Is Gratitude?
While it can look a little different from one person to another, gratitude is generally defined as a disposition or characteristic that allows an individual to perceive and appreciate the positive and meaningful aspects of life.
Gratitude can also be described as an emotion of thankfulness and recognition, adds Dani Moye, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist in East Windsor, Connecticut, and founder of Harmony Cove Therapy.
So, how do you know if you’re grateful for something? According to Dr. Moye, when we’re feeling grateful for something, we handle that particular part of life with care, attentiveness and consciousness.
Another way to think about gratitude is that it often elicits warm, positive emotions—including happiness, love and joy, explains Nathan Brandon, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in San Francisco. “It’s the opposite of feelings like resentment, envy and regret,” he continues. If you tend to be a grateful person, you may also be more generous and compassionate toward others, he adds.
5 Mental Health Benefits of Gratitude
While several studies link gratitude to enhanced physical health—reduced stress, a stronger immune system, improved sleep quality and lower blood pressure, to name a few benefits—practicing gratitude can also improve mental health in some pretty meaningful ways.
Gratitude Can Help Regulate Your Emotions
Research suggests gratitude plays a role in a person’s ability to identify and regulate emotions, with some studies pointing to a possible relationship between gratitude and emotional intelligence.
“When we focus our attention on the good in our lives, the components that are making us feel sad or worried are minimized,” says Dr. Moye. “This [perspective] can give us a sense of emotional freedom and serenity, regardless of what we face.”
Gratitude Can Elevate Your Mindset
When someone feels grateful—which can be described as a positive emotion in itself—research shows they tend to experience more positive feelings overall. Some studies also find that building gratitude practices into psychotherapy sessions can actually help promote a positive cognitive mindset because the focus shifts from negative experiences to more positive ones.
Reaping the benefits of thinking positively can take time, but with practice, the pursuit of happiness can be a worthwhile and effective one. “As we develop a relationship with gratitude, it [can] become easier to reframe our thinking in difficult moments of life,” says Dr. Moye.
Gratitude Can Help You Feel More Connected to Others
“Gratitude may help people feel more connected to others and the world around them, which can lead to increased happiness and decreased loneliness,” says Dr. Brandon.
Research backs that point, with studies finding that gratitude can help promote emotional closeness and the maintenance of strong bonds in intimate and non-intimate relationships. Additional studies suggest the expression of gratitude—and the coinciding ability to strengthen social bonds— may help reduce feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness.
Gratitude Can Motivate You Toward Better Outcomes
When you’re grateful for something, that gratitude is often reflected by and aligned with your outcomes, says Dr. Moye. “For example,” she says, “When we hold gratitude for our endurance, it will be reflected in our eating habits and physical activity.”
Research suggests gratitude exercises may, in fact, lead to more positive outcomes. Not only can they encourage health-promoting behaviors (like healthier eating), but they’ve also been found to inspire prosocial behavior (helping others). As an added benefit, Dr. Brandon says prosocial behavior may lead to increased social support (i.e friends and acquaintances who are available and able to help you), which is another factor linked to improved mental health.
Gratitude Can Help Protect You From the Effects of Stress
The connection between gratitude and improved mental health in the face of stress has been recognized by researchers for quite some time. One study found feeling more gratitude to be associated with less stress during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time marked by a significant uptick in stress and anxiety levels for many people.
“Gratitude anchors us back toward our inner knowing that we are in control of our peace by how we choose to respond to stress,” says Dr. Moye.
Expert Tips for Practicing Gratitude for Mental Health
With all those benefits in mind, you may be looking for some simple ways to feel more grateful. The good news? Gratitude can be incorporated easily into your daily routine, says Dr. Brandon.
Here are a few tips for increasing gratitude in your life from Dr. Moye and Dr. Brandon.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
“Taking time each day to reflect on the things you’re thankful for can help increase overall well-being and life satisfaction,” says Dr. Brandon. You don’t have to write every single thing you’re grateful for, either. Taking a few minutes a day to jot down a few of the things you feel thankful for in that moment should do the trick, explains Dr. Moye.
Appreciate the Intangible
One common form of gratitude is the feeling you get when you receive a gift from someone. But, as mentioned earlier, gratitude has different meanings, and it comes down to recognizing and acknowledging your appreciation for anything that provides you value or meaning.
“True gratitude comes from a place of humility and doesn’t require the attachment of something tangible,” says Dr. Moye.
Honor the Present Moment
In an ever-moving, social media-obsessed society, it can be hard to enjoy the gift of rest and stillness—but gratitude can help. “Gratitude helps us slow down our nervous system and give ourselves permission to feel joy,” says Dr. Moye.
Perform Acts of Kindness for Others
Picking up litter, volunteering or paying it forward (which could be as simple as paying for the person behind you in line for coffee) all count as acts of kindness, says Dr. Brandon.