Your initial introduction to giving thanks may have been back when your grandmother bought you the Barbie Dream House. (“Say thank you to Grandma!”) But gratitude encompasses so much more than an acknowledgment for a gift. You can appreciate someone in your life, like a spouse or a child, or an experience you’ve had, such as a good night’s sleep, or a beautiful sunset. Or, these days, you can applaud your good health and the health of your family.
Practicing gratitude can be affirming, calming, and even good for your health: Research has shown that it may help to boost your happiness levels, improve your relationships, reduce your stress levels, and lower your blood-pressure. And while focusing on this feeling can feel like a monumental task sometimes, taking the time to find — and focus on — the positives, even when they feel out of reach, can be the key to achieving an optimistic outlook, deeper meaning in your day-to-day experiences, and a healthier state of mind.
Put It Into Practice
“There is sufficient evidence to say that people can intentionally raise their happiness by practicing positive activities,” says happiness researcher Kristin Layous, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at California State University, East Bay, whose work has shown that people feel both uplifted and indebted after expressing gratitude.
“Some evidence suggests that this may work via helping people fulfill their innate psychological needs for autonomy — feeling like they have free choice and control in their lives; competence — feeling like they are skilled and successful in their daily lives; and connectedness — feeling like they have meaningful relationships in their lives,” she says.
It helps people cultivate more positive emotions, delight in good experiences, and better deal with difficulties. And being grateful may help more than just the person who gives the thanks. The saying, “You get what you give” certainly applies here. Being gracious has a ripple effect. Expressing those emotions outward makes those around you feel good themselves and then, in turn, they’ll want to continue the chain. Read on to learn how gratitude may improve your life and the lives of those around you and how to incorporate the practice into your daily routine.
The Health Benefits of Being Grateful
Appreciative people aren’t just more likely to feel less stressed and have better blood-pressure readings: They may also have stronger immune systems, perceive pain less intensely, and sleep more soundly, according to scientific studies. “Research has shown that gratitude promotes better sleep via more positive ‘pre-sleep cognitions’ — you are thinking more positively as you go to bed and therefore have a better night sleep, and better sleep is related to better physical health outcomes,” Layous says.
“Positive emotions in general, including gratitude, ‘undo’ or neutralize negative emotions which are related to physical health,” she adds. Additionally, you may manage your health better when you practice gratitude. “People are more likely to exercise when they’re reflecting on what they’re grateful for than when they’re not,” says happiness researcher Amit Kumar, PhD, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Being Grateful Improves Your Well-Being
Recognizing that you have good friends and other positive influences in your life may make
you more optimistic, prompting you to feel happier about your circumstances, even if your situation isn’t perfect. Sharing these feelings may enhance those emotions.
“One study found that up to a month later, people who had expressed gratitude to somebody else were feeling better than a placebo-control condition where people didn’t do that,” Kumar says. You don’t even need to thank someone directly when sharing the feelings to experience the benefits.
People randomly assigned to keep a gratitude journal and share it with a friend (who wasn’t necessarily mentioned anywhere in the journal) saw greater boosts to their well-being than those who kept their journals all to themselves, Layous says. You gain something positive when you share, even if you are not necessarily sharing directly with the person you’re talking about.”
Acknowledgement Can Enrich Your Relationships
Recognizing that you’re thankful for the things that someone does for you, or for a strong friendship, may make you feel closer to that person and express it in caring, loving ways.
“When you feel appreciated by your partner,” Layous says, “you are more likely to engage
in relationship-maintenance behaviors — for example, doing things for your partner — which makes them feel appreciated and cared for and prompts them to appreciate you, which prompts you to do more positive relationship behaviors, and on and on in the positive loop.”
Recognizing the people you care for in your life helps you to feel less isolated and lonely, which may have immeasurable benefits. “Feeling socially connected, I think, is a big part of what’s contributing to those positive health effects,” Kumar says.
How To Cultivate Gratitude
The two most-researched ways that people express their feelings are writing thank-you letters and keeping gratitude journals. People who do the latter typically jot down three things that they’re grateful for each day. Over time, the journal becomes a collection of positive memories, which you may refer to when you need an emotional boost.
Gratitude thank-you letters (not to be confused with thank-you notes that you send in response to a gift) express appreciation to someone for listening or for being helpful. You don’t have to share the thank-you letter with the person it’s about, but it can help spread gratitude, which extends positive feelings to others.
“You’re making yourself happy and you’re making someone else really, really happy,” says Kumar, who has studied the effects of thank-you notes on recipients. “The way they describe it, it’s kind of like the best thing that happened to them that day.” Whether you choose to express gratitude to others or keep it to yourself, adopting the practice shouldn’t be overwhelming or time-consuming. “It only takes a few minutes,” Kumar says. “We could all be doing that a little more often.”
Easy Ways To Show Appreciation
Gratitude journals and thank-you notes aren’t the only ways to express grateful feelings. Both of these methods involve writing, which may not feel natural to everyone. “One important thing is that people find a way to express gratitude that feels authentic to them,” Kristin Layous, PhD, says. “If it starts to feel like a chore, it really undermines the purpose.”
If you don’t enjoy writing, you can verbally thank others, by phone or in person. You can snap photos of moments that you’re grateful for and keep them as a visual gratitude journal or share them with friends as a photographic thank-you note. You can also practice gratitude within your thoughts, by consciously thinking about the positives in your life. Decide how often to express thanks depending on how you feel. Some people do it daily, while others do it less frequently.
Experiment With Gratitude
“One person told me she set an alarm on her phone at 3 p.m. every day, because that’s generally when she experienced a drop to her mood. It was a reminder to think about something she was grateful about and boost her mood for the rest of the day,” Layous says. “One study found that counting blessings once per week improved well-being more than counting blessings three times per week. I can imagine the ones assigned to three times per week felt more forced than the once-per-week people,” Layous adds.
Experimenting with the frequency and timing of your gratitude practice can help you fine-tune it to fit your lifestyle. “Everyone may need to adjust to what works for them,” Layous says. And, she adds, no choice is permanent. What you do and how you do it may change over time. The point is to remind yourself of the good in your life. And make sure those around you know you value them.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Mindfulness for Women, in 2021.