Experts say that being grateful is good for our health—but can it truly make us happier?
How often do you feel—and express—gratitude in your everyday life? Perhaps you’re thinking of the numerous times that you’ve said “thank you” to someone for holding the door—or maybe you’re remembering the last time you felt grateful to be spending time with friends. Whatever the case, you might also be wondering: How much impact can these small, sometimes fleeting moments of gratitude really have on your life?
As it turns out, the answer is: A lot. According to experts, the act of practicing gratitude (which goes way beyond just saying “thank you,” by the way!) has been shown to have myriad benefits for your mental and physical health—from increasing feelings of optimism and hope to strengthening your relationships, boosting immunity, and even improving sleep.
But wait: What exactly is gratitude, anyway—and can it actually make us happier? To find out, we tapped psychologists and mental health experts to weigh in—including on what gratitude really means, its long-term benefits on your health, and the best ways to practice it in your daily life.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is “a positive state of mind evoked by focusing on and appreciating the good in one’s life,” explains Erin Wiley, M.A., L.P.C.C., a licensed clinical psychotherapist and executive director of The Willow Center. “It is being conscientious about living in a state of thankfulness.”
But gratitude goes beyond just recognizing the good in your life—it also entails acknowledging that the good comes from factors outside of yourself, says Mary Ann Little, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic Children. “Gratitude works to encourage recognition of the sources of goodness as being outside of the self,” she explains. “This requires an appreciation for the contributions of others and external events. In this way, it is an unselfish practice, as the focus of gratitude is on the world around us, on both people and activities—externalities—that are not ourselves.”
Why should we practice gratitude?
According to experts, gratitude has been shown to have a multitude of benefits on our mental health and wellbeing—and even on our social relationships with other people. “Psychologically, it is associated with greater optimism, happiness, alertness, and overall positivity,” says Dr. Little. “Socially, it is associated with more helpful, generous, and compassionate behavior, a tendency to be more forgiving, diminished feelings of isolation and loneliness, and both building and maintaining better relationships.”
In fact, research specifically shows that “people who regularly engage in a practice of gratitude report being more optimistic and feeling more hopeful,” says Wiley. In one key 2003 study conducted by leading psychologists and gratitude experts Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, people who wrote down things they were grateful for during a period of 10 weeks had considerably more positive changes in their mood than those who wrote about wrote about things that annoyed them or those who merely wrote about life events—including feeling more optimistic about the upcoming week, more connected with other people, and more satisfied with their lives as a whole.
The benefits extended beyond just mental wellbeing, too. In the same study, those who wrote about things they were grateful for also reported fewer physical complaints, more time exercising, and longer sleep duration as well as better sleep quality than the other two groups. “Physically, [gratitude] is associated with lowered blood pressure, better sleep, fewer aches and pains, and stronger immune systems,” notes Dr. Little.
Does gratitude really make us happier?
According to a growing body of research, yes—it really can! Those who regularly practice gratitude may experience more positive emotions like optimism, hope, satisfaction, and a sense of connection with other people—which can ultimately lead to more happiness in the long run. “Grateful people experience more happiness and satisfaction than others,” says Wiley.
Studies even show that living in a state of continued gratitude can help reduce the risk and symptoms of depression, according to Wiley. In fact, one study conducted in 2005 found that writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to someone for five days in a row resulted in an increase in self-reported happiness scores—and a reduction of depressive symptoms—for at least one month afterwards.
But what exactly is the mechanism by which gratitude makes us happier? Ultimately, it may all come down to perspective. “Gratitude gives people a lens through which negative life events can be interpreted more fruitfully,” explains Dr. Little. “Anxiety, depression, or negativism are limited in the face of appreciation for the many good things the world offers and bestows on us…in the end, gratitude changes one’s perspective and reorients attention and focus on others and the world beyond.”
How to practice gratitude
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
One of the most popular—and easiest—ways to practice gratitude is keeping a gratitude journal, which entails regularly recording the things for which you are grateful for and maintaining it for days, weeks, or months, says Dr. Little. Asha Tarry, psychotherapist and life coach, specifically recommends writing down up to five things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. “Spending five minutes before bed simply listing just three gratitudes is a great way to end the day on a positive and thankful note, likely leading to a better night’s sleep,” adds Wiley.
2. Say what you’re grateful for out loud.
Beyond just writing down the things you’re grateful for, Tarry also suggests vocalizing them so you can hear yourself say them out loud. “By the end of the week, return to your journal and read each day’s journal entry aloud,” she advises. “Reciting your words aloud is a practice that positively alters one’s thinking…It’s also helpful to recite your words aloud so your mind begins to override mental chatter you’ve inherited from other sources.”
3. Share your gratitude with others.
Why not spread the positivity to others? Dr. Little suggests “exercises that convey appreciation for someone specific in your life,” such as writing a gratitude letter or paying a “gratitude visit”—which can entail anything from hand-delivering a thank you note or gift to a friend or calling a parent to say how grateful you are for them. Not only can it make us feel happier—as demonstrated in the 2005 gratitude letter study—it can also spread that happiness to others, and even boost our relationships with loved ones.
4. Reframe your complaints and negative thoughts.
Complaining about the annoying or bad things that happen in your life is often a part of our natural everyday dialogue—but reframing your thinking around these events can help transform your feelings to make you feel more grateful, says Tarry.
One specific exercise that she recommends is to sit in silence for 10 minutes at the end of each day and rewind your conversations with other people quietly in your mind. “Ask yourself, ‘How many times did I hear myself complain today?’ Make a mental note. Then commit to a short-term goal of integrating another practice when you communicate with others,” Tarry advises. “For example, tell yourself that the next time someone asks you about something you would normally complain about, pause and then find an alternative thought to say—and let it not be a complaint.”
5. Set up visual reminders.
Sometimes you need to be reminded to take a moment out of your day to be thankful—which is where visual reminders come in. These can help trigger thoughts of gratitude, and serve as quick cues to reflect on the things you’re grateful for throughout your day. For instance, Wiley recommends turning to photographs of loved ones. “Whether it’s old school photos or a digital slideshow, gathering and organizing images of all of the good things in your life is a way to intellectually bring your mind into a state of thankfulness,” she says. “Spend time once a week adding to your photo collection and take time to enjoy with the images as they remind you of all of the good that surrounds you.”
Other ideas for visual reminders can be a note where you’ve written down an uplifting message or a quote that inspires you, or even a special gift that you’ve received from a loved one. Put them in places you’re likely to look often throughout the day—such as your mirror, your fridge, or your laptop—which can help make practicing gratitude a daily habit.
6. Volunteer and give to others.
One great way to count your blessings—and give back those blessings—is through acts of service. “Giving to others is a great way to conscientiously live in a state of appreciation for the things we have in our lives,” says Wiley. Whether it’s donating to a charity, volunteering your time to a cause you care about, or even enacting small random acts of kindness to strangers, giving back to others can help strengthen your sense of purpose and strengthen your ties with your community.
7. Notice and appreciate the small things.
When you think of the things you’re grateful for, some of the most obvious answers might be your good health, your family and friends, or your job—but what about the smaller things you don’t often notice everyday? “While these [bigger] experiences are important, the practice of gratitude can extend to simple everyday pleasures that often go unnoticed: a hug from a child, a smile of delight, laughter with a friend, sunshine in the trees, a gentle rain, or a walk through the neighborhood,” says Dr. Little. “These smaller, less obvious experiences are equally important and offer more numerous opportunities for appreciation.”