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Can Gratitude Improve Mental Health?

On World Gratitude Day, we're taking a look at how gratitude can help improve mental health.


Today is World Gratitude Day. Cicero described gratitude as the greatest virtue, the ability to be thankful for what we have in our life, rather than worrying about what is lacking. And it seems Cicero was on to something. Scientific evidence shows that a personal demeanour of gratitude can promote enhanced functioning across all areas of our life, including physical, emotional and psychological experiencing, our personal and family relationships, work and culture. Evidence suggests that gratitude enhances psychological and social well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010).


Gratitude is linked with a wide range of mental health benefits such as life satisfaction, motivation, energy, improved sleep and improved health alongside reduced stress, anxiety and depression. People who feel grateful for life’s blessings tend to be more engaged with life and the people in their life. They tend to be more self-accepting and accepting of others. They feel more connected, have stronger community bonds, benefit from improved social connections and tend to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life, more so than people who worry about the things that are missing in their life.


However it seems that we are not necessarily born with a sense of gratitude. Increasingly in Western society, we seem to be battling individual personality traits such as neuroticism or narcissism, traits that make it difficult to recognize the positives in our life or the contributions that others make to improving our life. An increased sense of entitlement and resentment nurtures ingratitude and this can be damaging to our relationships and ultimately impact negatively on our mental health and wellbeing.


A sense of gratitude can be cultivated through gratitude journaling. In studies, daily and weekly gratitude journaling led to an overall sense of improved well-being, including fewer health complaints and a more positive outlook toward life. Participants also reported increased exercise and appraised their life more positively. Additional positive benefits of keeping a gratitude journal include:


1) Coping with stress: gratitude journaling provides useful coping skills for dealing with losses. The journaling process helps build more positive thoughts, increasing the focus on the benefits in life and on others, increasing personal growth and reducing the maladaptive obsessing with losses or things we don’t have (Fredrickson, 2004 ; Watkins, 2000 ).

2) Reducing materialism: materialism can lead to feelings of envy and resentment towards others. People who express gratitude are less likely to define personal success in terms of material accomplishments and possessions (McCullough et al., 2002 ) and ultimately feel better about themselves.

3) Improved self-esteem: expressing gratitude can generate positive feelings of self-satisfaction and improved self-esteem Froh, Yurkewicz, & Kashdan (2009).

4) Combats depression: Gratitude aids the retrieval of positive memories, boosting wellbeing. People who express gratitude have a more positive life narrative which helps combat depression (Watkins, Grimm, & Kolts, 2004).

5) Improves social bonds: People who express gratitude tend to be extraverted, agreeable, empathic, emotionally stable, forgiving, trusting, and generous, all the traits that make them desirable friends and romantic partners, thus combatting loneliness (McCullough et. al, 2002 ; Wood et al., 2008).

6) Supports goal achievement: People who express gratitude have been found to be more engaged in effortful goal striving. Quality of life therapy advocates the importance of goals as a strategy for boosting life happiness and satisfaction (Frisch, 2006 ).

7) Promotes physical health: Gratitude interventions have been shown to reduce bodily complaints, increase sleep duration and efficiency and promote exercise (Emmons & McCullough, 2003


And is if all those benefits to us as individuals are not reasons enough to begin to nurture a sense of gratitude, evidence also suggests that the expression of gratitude is paid forward as it leads to “upstream reciprocity”, the passing on of kindness and benefits to others (Nowak & Roch, 2007). That’s because gratitude makes the giver feel good, encouraging even more kindness.


Cultivating a sense of gratitude then feels like a good strategy if we want to improve our mental health and wellbeing as well as improving our wider society. It’s an attitude that we can nurture to become an ingrained habit. But where do we start? Five minutes at the beginning or end of each day to express our gratitude for what we have in our life feels like a good habit to start. We can just take a few minutes each day to jot down a few thoughts on those things that are important to us and give us meaning. Things like our family and loved ones; our homes and communities; the things that make our life easier or better; our holidays; our work; our friends and colleagues. So what’s not to love, order your gratitude journal today and get journaling, you’ll soon be reaping the benefits.


References

Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know Robert. A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra (2010).



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