Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and this wild year is almost at its end. There’s no question that 2020 has been a year filled with ups and downs, and more than a little uncertainty. In this ever-changing, unpredictable world, grounding ourselves in something constant has never been more vital. Staying optimistic isn’t a luxury, it’s non-negotiable.
Expressing gratitude is almost cliche in the self-help world. We all know that we should be thankful, but that common sense doesn’t always translate to common practice. So instead of bumper-sticker-worthy quotes and tired calls to action, here’s what the research tells us about gratitude:
1. It improves relationships
A 2011 study from Florida State University found that couples who expressed gratitude were also more comfortable voicing concerns about their relationship.
Another study found that when participants were asked to go the extra mile to express gratitude for one of their friends over a three-week period, both the perception of their friend and their comfort level expressing concerns about the relationship improved significantly.
Open and honest communication is crucial to the maintenance of any relationship over time, and it seems that expressing gratitude makes you see people in a better light, while also making it easier to have those tough conversations.
2. It Improves Physical Health
A study from the Journal of Health Psychology found that gratitude journaling was associated with decreased levels of inflammatory biomarkers over an 8 week period. Inflammation is a contributing factor in everything from diabetes to lung cancer. The study also found that gratitude led to an increase in heart rate variability (HRV), an important measure of overall health and especially cardiac health.
These observed effects are probably due to the effect gratitude has on the brain-body connection. A 2009 fMRI study in the Oxford Journal’s Cerebral Cortex showed that gratitude and other positive social sentiments were associated with greater activation of the mesolimbic reward system. Some research suggests that the activation of this pathway, among other things, may participate in the maintenance of whole-body homeostasis.
3. It Reduces Stress
Numerous studies have shown that gratitude has a positive effect on life satisfaction and the daily experience of positive emotions. Another fMRI study from the University of Southern
California, Los Angeles found that gratitude increased activity in areas of the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, two areas that are heavily involved in emotional processing. Incidentally, these areas of the brain are also activated during Yoga and meditation practices.
Gratitude gives us greater control over our emotional experience, allowing us to cultivate more positive emotions in everyday life. For people suffering from depression, this can be an incredibly useful tool.
4. It Helps You Sleep
People who are stressed, depressed, anxious, or angry don’t sleep as well as others. A 2008 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that gratitude can improve sleep quality by affecting pre-sleep cognitions (the thoughts we have just before falling asleep). Gratitude increases positive pre-sleep cognitions and decreases negative ones, resulting in better sleep.
Gratitude is such a unique emotion with the potential to exert positive effects on a number of mental and physiological processes, and its promise warrants further research.
To get started, take 5 minutes each morning to write down what you’re grateful for. It could be anything from the weather outside to the friendships you have at work. Notice how it sets the tone for the day. You might even notice that the more you consciously express gratitude, the easier it gets to be grateful unconsciously.
Fox, Glenn R, et al. “Neural Correlates of Gratitude.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 6, 2015, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491.
Lambert, Nathaniel & Fincham, Frank. (2011). Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior. Emotion (Washington, D.C.). 11. 52-60. 10.1037/a0021557.
Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J, Atkins S. Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. J Psychosom Res. 2009 Jan;66(1):43-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.002. Epub 2008 Nov 22. PMID: 19073292.