Mental health

You might have thought that the key to happiness lay in good food, money, or good relationships — but could it in fact be found in gratitude?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, an author and professor of psychology at the University of California, USA, seems to think so. In her book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want she refers to gratitude as “a kind of meta-strategy for achieving happiness”, stating: “gratitude is many things to many people. It is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking on the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life”.

Where does gratitude come from?

The concept of being grateful isn’t new by any means. More than 2,000 years ago, Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero described it as not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.

Yet in the past decade, gratitude has undergone something of a renaissance. Most of us grew up being taught to say thank you, but these days we’re being encouraged to practise appreciation in a more formalised, prescribed way.

Gratitude has become one of the biggest wellbeing buzzwords of our time, with entire books and TED talks dedicated to demonstrating its endless potential. But it is far from being a gimmicky health fad: its benefits are backed by science, with many studies finding robust links between gratitude and wellbeing.

Does gratitude improve happiness?

One of the first pieces of research into gratitude was undertaken by Robert Emmons, widely considered to be the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. In a seminal study back in 2003, Emmons and fellow researcher Michael McCullough found even the simplest of gratitude practices can lead to a significant increase in happiness.

They split participants into three groups, all of whom were asked to reflect on the previous week. Those in Group One were instructed to write down five things they were grateful for, Group Two was asked to write down five hassles, and Group Three was asked to write down five things that had affected them — whether positive or negative.

After 10 weeks, results demonstrated that participants in Group One felt generally better about life, were more excited about the upcoming week, and even experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness.

But what was it about the experience of appreciation that had such a positive impact on their mental health? The answer may partly be common sense. Psychologist Philip Corr points out that exercises like the one used in Emmons’ study encourage us to focus on the positive things in life and distract us from the negatives.

“Gratitude strengthens the feeling that there are many good things in life,” he says. “It gives us a sense of having control over our lives — we are able to recognise good things, and because we are more sensitive to them we derive benefits on a daily basis.”

The science of gratitude

A 2009 study at the National Institutes of Health looked into what happens in the brain when we feel gratitude. Researchers found subjects who focused on gratitude had an increase in blood flow to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that plays a role in many important bodily functions, including releasing hormones and controlling appetite. Crucially, enhanced activity here can help minimise cortisol — the stress hormone known to increase heart rate and blood pressure — meaning being grateful can help reduce stress.

Can gratitude improve your sleep?

Researchers at the University of Manchester found that writing in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes every evening helped students worry less at night time, resulting in better and longer sleep.

The benefits here are similar to those drawn from mindfulness practices, and in many ways the two go hand in hand. Both are about focusing on the present rather than always wanting more — an antidote to the immediate gratification we so often seek. They’re also both about developing an awareness for what’s going on around us and appreciating the small things in life.

What are the long term benefits of gratitude?

Being grateful can help us appreciate the here and now — but a 2019 study found that looking on the bright side of life could help us to live longer too.

US researchers followed just under 70,000 women for 10 years and just under 1,500 men for 30 years, discovering that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11-15% longer lifespan, and were significantly more likely to live to 85 compared with the least optimistic group.

Although the researchers involved stated they’re unclear as to exactly how optimism helps prolong life, they pointed to other research which suggests that positive people are more able to regulate emotions, as well as bounce back from stressors.

What are the social benefits of gratitude?

But it’s not all about reaping the individual benefits; practising gratitude can help the wellbeing of others around us, too.

Along with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, psychologist Martin Seligman recruited over 400 participants and asked each of them to write a letter of thanks to someone who’d been particularly kind to them. Each participant then hand-delivered the letter, and discussed the contents with its recipient. Afterwards, everyone involved reported feeling happier.

Similarly, in another US study, researchers examined a group of Oregon nurses to see how being thanked affected their physical and mental wellbeing, discovering it increased workplace satisfaction leading, in turn, to better sleep, fewer headaches and healthier eating.6

How to practice gratitude

For those keen to implement practices into their everyday life, Corr recommends setting aside time each evening or morning to reflect on the day’s events. “This externalises one’s thoughts and makes them seem more real,” he says.

It is also a way of being able to reflect at a later date. “People keep diaries for the same reason: it provides a narrative to life which enable us to have more meaning.”

Seligman suggests the “three good things” exercise, which simply involves writing down three things that went well for you each day before going to sleep.

But it’s not essential to write things down; verbalising good things to others can also be beneficial. As Corr says: “This strengthens the memory of it, and it develops a habit of looking for things for which we have reason to express gratitude.”

Other ways to practise gratitude include writing thank you letters for gifts you receive over the holidays, reconnecting with an old friend by writing a chatty letter or send a card, or taking a moment before eating to appreciate the food before you.

Being appreciative isn’t a miracle cure, and it certainly can’t make pain disappear. However, if we’re looking for the single thing that can pivot everything else we most need to live as fulfilled, healthy, long-living human beings, gratitude seems to be more than in there with a shout.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like reading six tips for coping with Christmas blues