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last updated June 16, 2021

What Is Gratitude and What Are Its Benefits?

by Rob Arthur

Is gratitude the key you’re missing in your pursuit of health and happiness?

Read on to learn what gratitude is, its benefits, and how to practice it.

If you have any questions after reading, let me know in the comments 🙂

What is gratitude?

Gratitude can be difficult to define.

However, one of the most frequently cited papers on gratitude defines it as “noticing and appreciating the positive in the world” (1).

Additionally, the paper outlines eight characteristics of gratitude:

  1. Frequency, intensity, and density of feelings of gratitude.
  2. Appreciation of others.
  3. Focus on what one has and/or the absence of feelings of deprivation.
  4. Feelings of awe.
  5. Behaviors that express gratitude.
  6. Focusing on the positive aspects of a given moment.
  7. Appreciation of life’s impermanence.
  8. Recognizing and appreciating that life could be worse.

The paper’s authors also describe gratitude as a “trait”, rather than a “state”.

That is, it’s stable, long-lasting, and intrinsic, rather than temporary, brief, or extrinsic (2).

What are the benefits of gratitude?

The benefits of gratitude extend across physical, mental, and social health.

First, let’s talk about potential physical health benefits.

Physical health benefits

Observational studies link gratitude to improved mood and sleep, less fatigue, greater self-efficacy, and better blood sugar control (3,4).

That said, these studies don’t demonstrate a “cause and effect” relationship.

However, there are experiments suggesting gratitude might drive such improvements.

For example, in a 2015 experiment, young women who completed two weeks of gratitude journaling reported increased well-being, optimism, and better sleep, and had lower blood pressure (5).

Similarly, in a 2016 experiment, heart failure patients demonstrated improved inflammatory markers and autonomic nervous system function after eight weeks of gratitude journaling (6).

Next, let’s discuss some mental health benefits.

Mental health benefits

In a 2011 study, those who reported higher gratitude also reported lower depression, better quality of life, and greater life appreciation (7).

Again, association doesn’t demonstrate causation.

However, there are experiments suggesting a causal relationship here, too.

For example, in one experiment, participants tasked with writing about life events for which they felt grateful reported less anxiety about death (8).

Similarly, those assigned to gratitude journaling twice per week in a 2015 experiment reported decreased symptoms of depression of lower perceived stress (9).

Finally, let’s explore some possible social health benefits.

Social health benefits

In 2002, researchers explored the relationship between gratitude and a variety of social characteristics (10).

They found grateful people to be more empathic, forgiving, helpful, and supportive.

Moreover, they appear to be less materialistic and more spiritually minded.

Of course, these associations don’t necessarily demonstrate cause and effect.

So, let’s talk about how to get started seeing these benefits for yourself.

How to practice gratitude

You might not think there’s anything you can “do” to make yourself feel grateful.

However, there are steps you can take to make it a bit easier.

A 2010 paper, “Gratitude and Well Being”, summarizes eight effective gratitude practices to consider (11).

  1. Journaling about things for which to be grateful.
  2. Thinking about someone for whom you are grateful.
  3. Writing/sending a letter to someone for whom you are grateful.
  4. Meditating on gratitude (focusing on the present).
  5. Writing down a number of things for which you’re grateful.
  6. Practicing saying “thank you” in a sincere and meaningful way.
  7. Writing thank you notes.
  8. If religious, praying about your gratitude.

That said, these strategies often overlap with another.

For example, one popular tool, The Five Minute Journal, combines numbers 1 and 5 above.

It includes a daily exercise of writing out three things for which you’re grateful each morning.

You might also find yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or other mindfulness helpful.

Such practices might help you quiet your mind in preparation to reflect on things for which you’re grateful (12).

Regardless, you might want to minimize distraction to focus solely on practicing gratitude.

What to do now

We’ve been using the word “practice” throughout this article.

Gratitude is a skill, requiring learning, practice, and patience.

That is, it won’t always come easily, and you won’t always want to do it.

Sometimes, it’s really difficult to identify things for which we’re grateful.

That’s okay.

Working to appreciate the smallest, seemingly insignificant things might make a significant difference in your life.

For example, you might express gratitude for having food, a home, or simply waking up.

Of course, these are only examples, and you may or may not personally appreciate them.

The key is finding those things for which you, personally, are grateful.

Your practice is yours, and yours alone.

It has to work for you.

Do what you can.

That’s all you can do.

You’ve got this.


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