We say “thank you” in its various forms all throughout the day—when someone holds the elevator door, when your partner does the dishes, when a stranger compliments your new shirt. Sharing our gratitude serves as a nicety, point of connection, and way to acknowledge the kindness of others, but did you know gratitude can also have positive effects on your health?
To start, gratitude can be viewed in two different ways: a state of being and a personal characteristic. Gratitude as a state of being refers to those moments when you feel grateful and appreciative of people, life circumstances, or specific experiences. It’s when you’re feeling that ooey gooey goodness about your life and relationships. Gratitude as a characteristic or trait, however, refers to a natural orientation towards optimism and appreciation. Generally speaking, people who demonstrate gratitude as a trait have a more positive perspective on life, regardless of their circumstances. In simpler terms, gratitude as a state is feeling grateful in a passing moment, while gratitude as a trait is feeling grateful as you move through life.
Regardless of how often you feel grateful or whether gratitude is a defining trait in your personality, you can practice gratitude to receive powerful outcomes for your mental and physical health. When I say “practicing gratitude,” however, it means more than just saying “thank you” to every stranger who holds the door for you (though that’s great to do, too). A gratitude practice extends deeper. It means you consistently take a few moments—whether each day or each week—to reflect on the things in life you appreciate. This can take a variety of forms, but first, let’s outline the ways gratitude can impact your health and happiness.
The research on gratitude provides windows into how practicing gratitude may positively affect the body. A variety of studies have reviewed the effects of gratitude on heart health, and found that gratitude practices generally decrease diastolic blood pressure and increase cardiac coherence, a measure of the unity between heart rate, breath rate and emotional state. Additionally, gratitude practices have been found to improve the quality of sleep and specific inflammatory markers. The burgeoning research is beginning to show how gratitude can benefit your heart health, sleep quality, and inflammation levels.
Stress & Mental Health
Some of gratitude’s most significant health benefits exist in the mind. For starters, a wide variety of studies have shown marked benefits—both at the time of the study, and months after it completed—on practicing gratitude to decrease depression, anxiety, and stress. Moreover, observational studies have found that individuals with more trait gratitude—a natural predisposition towards optimism and appreciation—show lower levels of depression and anxiety. When you are around people that have these traits, notice how you feel. It makes me feel more thankful with a more positive outlook toward my life and future.
So, taking a few moments to practice gratitude each day can ease difficult emotions and make moving through challenging transitions in life simpler.
Curious about starting your own gratitude practice to reap some of the physical and mental health benefits? Below we’ve listed three ways you can start tapping into gratitude today—both to access more state gratitude, and to create gratitude as a personal trait.
1. Create a gratitude journal
One of the most common gratitude interventions used in gratitude studies is a gratitude journal. To begin your gratitude journal, create a space where it’s simple and convenient for you to regularly write about the moments, people, and things you’re grateful for in your life. This may be a physical journal that you keep in your nightstand or backpack, or perhaps a dedicated note in your phone you can easily update. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s easily accessible!
Next, choose the regularity with which you’d like to write in your journal. You could consider:
- Daily, each night before you go to bed
- Biweekly, at the beginning and end of each working week
- Weekly, as your week begins
It can take some experimentation to find the schedule that works best for you, but because you’re creating a new habit—gratitude—more is better!
Once you have your journal and schedule settled, what do you actually write about? Generally, a good rule of thumb is choosing 3-5 things to reflect on. When writing, be specific about the memory or person—what makes you smile about them? Why are you grateful for them? What are the details of the memory?
For the journal, you can also consider including the difficult things that occurred that you took a lesson from or saw personal growth from. This can help you cultivate resilience in the face of adversity and find the positives in tough circumstances.
2. Tap into the emotion of gratitude
When you practice gratitude, it’s important to not just repeat or recite the things you’re grateful for. For instance, when writing in your gratitude journal, the goal isn’t to simply list the things you’re happy about with no change in your emotional state. The purpose of any gratitude practice is to help you tap into the emotion of gratitude itself!
One way to do this is to visualize the moment, person, or experience that you’re reflecting on or writing about in your journal. Take a moment to close your eyes, take a breath, and think back to that moment: What did the scene around you look like? What expressions were on the faces of the people you were with? What did you hear, what made you laugh, how did you feel? Immerse yourself in the moment—even just for a few seconds—and notice how that helps you tap into the actual feeling of gratitude.
If it’s difficult for you to visualize, you can also consider looking at old photos or watching old videos tap you into the moments of gratitude. Seek out the things which help you feel gratitude!
3. Visualize a future you’re working towards
The last exercise is more spiritual, and it’s inspired by the work of Joe Dispenza, a researcher and author whose work centers around meditation and manifestation. Expanding upon the last practice of visualizing moments, relationships, and things from your past or present life, in this practice, you visualize the future you’re working towards.
To do this, follow a similar structure. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and bring to mind what it would look and most importantly, feel like, in the career, relationships, or health you’re working towards. Really build out all of the details: What are you wearing in this visualization? How are you carrying yourself? How do you feel? How do the people around you respond to you? Build out a full scene and notice what emotions it brings out in you.
This can be a significant exercise because it frequently brings up strong feelings of optimism and gratitude—even though the visualized event hasn’t yet occurred.
Gratitude is a powerful emotion and trait; when you hone it into a regular practice, you can see immense positive effects on your mental, physical, and spiritual health. To start seeing the benefits of gratitude, begin your gratitude journal today and visualize the past, present,