The Secret Science of Gratitude

The secret science of gratitude

We learn to say “thank you” at an early age.

Over the years, the words have become a habit, an element of polite small talk as ubiquitous — and often as meaningless — as a “how are you?” The gratitude those two words are meant to convey, however, may hold a key ingredient to happiness.

The science of gratitude

In emotionally mature individuals, research has shown a strong correlation between expressions of genuine gratitude and participants’ feelings of well-being and happiness. Though the emotion may seem abstract, the mechanism is very concrete. Expressing (and receiving) gratitude cues our brains to release dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that make us feel happiness.

While each individual expression of thanks has distinct physical and mental benefits, a prolonged habit of gratitude can actually rewire our brains, forming new neural pathways and encouraging a virtuous cycle of thankfulness and well-being.

Grateful minds, healthy bodies

The benefits of this virtuous cycle are not only in our heads. Focusing on things for which we’re thankful can improve sleep quality, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, and foster better moods.

It can also discourage fatigue and help reduce inflammation, as well as lower the risk of heart failure, even for those who are susceptible.

Researchers have also tied gratitude to enhanced job satisfaction and increased motivation among students and employees. Employees especially demonstrated higher rates of engagement and retention in positions where they regularly received appreciation and thanks.

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Gratitude, stress, and the pandemic

Unsurprisingly, gratitude is also an effective tool to combat stress — a particularly vital tool in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

Study after study has linked COVID-19 to adverse mental health outcomes. As society finds its feet again after the one-two punch of pandemic and lockdown, it’s no surprise to see stress levels increase as the world continues to grapple with so many unknowns.

However, in a 2022 study, researchers saw positive outcomes among participants who engaged in gratitude-focused expressive writing interventions. These exercises, in which they concentrated on appreciating the everyday aspects of their lives, allowed them to process trauma and stress through the lens of gratitude.

Participants involved in this intervention style demonstrated increased psychological well-being, positive thoughts, and decreased feelings of anxiety.

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Cultivating gratitude

Outside of a structured study, there are simple, everyday ways to practice gratitude. Here are some of the top habit-building tactics for living a more thankful life.

  1. Write a thank-you note. Get in the habit of sending or hand delivering one thank-you note each month. The note can express gratitude for something someone has done for you, or simply let someone know what their friendship means to you.
  2. Journal daily. In each entry, list at least three things for which you are grateful. Habitual journalers advise that this practice is best completed first thing in the morning or at night before you fall asleep.
  3. Engage in positive self-reflection. Take a moment each day to identify something you like about yourself. Negative self-talk is all too common; reverse that trend with a reminder of what you’re thankful for about yourself!
  4. Share appreciation. Each day, choose a person and share what you appreciate about them.
  5. Practice meditation. Mindfulness meditation trains you to focus on the present moment without judgment. Focusing on something you’re thankful for is a good way to unite the benefits of mindfulness and gratitude.

References

  • Unanue W, Gomez Mella ME, Cortez DA, Bravo D, Araya-Véliz C, Unanue J, Van Den Broeck A. The Reciprocal Relationship Between Gratitude and Life Satisfaction: Evidence From Two Longitudinal Field Studies. Front Psychol. 2019 Nov 8;10:2480. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02480. PMID: 31780992; PMCID: PMC6857001. 
  • Fekete EM, Deichert NT. A Brief Gratitude Writing Intervention Decreased Stress and Negative Affect During the COVID-19 Pandemic. J Happiness Stud. 2022;23(6):2427-2448. doi: 10.1007/s10902-022-00505-6. Epub 2022 Feb 24. PMID: 35228834; PMCID: PMC8867461.
  • Nawa NE, Yamagishi N. Enhanced academic motivation in university students following a 2-week online gratitude journal intervention. BMC Psychol. 2021 May 13;9(1):71. doi: 10.1186/s40359-021-00559-w. PMID: 33980290; PMCID: PMC8117657.

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