What is gratitude exactly? It’s a conscious, positive emotion we express when we’re thankful for something — a gift, a word of praise, a general act of kindness. And each year, Thanksgiving reminds us of the value of gratitude and being thankful for what we have in our lives. We’ve all been raised to say thank you when somebody does something nice for us. We’re taught that being thankful for what someone does for you makes you a better person. But can showing gratitude also make you a healthier person? Science says it can.

Several researchers have studied the science of gratitude and positive psychology. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness and helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.[1]

Gordon, Impett, Kogan, Oveis, and Keltner published a study in 2012 — To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds — showing gratitude improves relationships with others at home and in the workplace.[2] Expressing gratitude induces positive emotions, such as happiness, pleasure, and contentment. By evoking these feelings, gratitude can improve our overall health and well-being. Couples who regularly express thankfulness to each other show improved relationships and demonstrate loyalty, trust, and lasting happiness more than couples who do not. Workers who express gratitude more often in the workplace were found to be more efficient, productive, and responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and triggers feelings of closeness and bonding (Algoe, 2012).

How Does Gratitude Improve Mental Health?

Research indicates that being grateful helps us feel happier, but how does it improve our mental health? Expressing thankfulness to others can improve relationships by fostering a stronger bond with others. Studies have shown that moral judgments involving feelings of gratefulness are evoked in the right anterior temporal cortex — basically your right temple area.[3] These researchers later found a higher volume of gray matter around this area. So basically, being thankful makes your brain bigger (sort of).

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t give two flips about my anterior temporal cortex or how big it is!” Luckily, that’s not the only way that gratitude can affect the brain. Zahn found that gratitude creates new connections in the bliss center of the brain, reduces fear and anxiety by regulating stress hormones, enhances dopamine and serotonin, and fosters new neural connections that help people think more positively. 

Emily Fletcher, the founder of a popular meditation training site, reported in one of her publications that gratitude is a “natural antidepressant.” Gratitude produces a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment; this happens at the chemical level in the brain. When we express and receive gratitude in return, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure and contentment. These chemicals make us feel good and improve happiness. In fact, many antidepressant medications target serotonin. By consciously practicing gratitude daily, we can strengthen certain connections in our brains and create a permanent attitude of thankfulness and positivity. 

Several studies show that gratitude can help to release toxic emotions, improve sleep quality, and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even pain. McCarty and Childre found that those participants who felt grateful had better cardiac functioning and were more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences.[4] They also showed a marked reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. Reducing this stress hormone leads to reduced anxiety and depression. Prolonged production of cortisol also increases belly fat and impairs memory. One could argue that not being thankful makes you fat and forgetful. 

Related: National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month — Why it Matters

5 Ways to Practice Gratitude

Research shows that practicing gratitude — 15 minutes a day, five days a week — for at least six weeks can enhance mental wellness and possibly promote a lasting change in perspective.[5] So how can you practice gratitude and reap the rewards? Here are 5 easy ways you can practice gratitude:

  1. Voice what you’re thankful for — vocalizing what you’re thankful for can have a greater impact than simply thinking it.
  2. Write it down — start a gratitude journal and write down your thoughts daily.
  3. Share your gratitude — be intentional and thank someone new each week.
  4. Meditate — Using different guided meditations let us widen our perspective on life and our connections to others.
  5. Learn to be grateful in hard situations — Finding ways to be grateful when things are hard can go a long way in improving the way you handle difficult situations.

I hope this article motivates you to be more grateful for what and who you have in your life. Being thankful is not just about being polite or making others feel good. Thankfulness and gratitude are in and of themselves a road to happiness. All of us will inevitably have ups and downs in our lives, but by choosing to focus on the positives and expressing gratitude for what we do have, we can improve our mental well-being and that of others. Remember, if you or a loved one is experiencing mental health issues or suffering from addiction, we’re here for you at Lake Point Recovery and Wellness.   

Tim Hughes


[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

[2] Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257-274.

[3] Zahn, R., Garrido, G., Moll, J., & Grafman, J. (2014). Individual differences in posterior cortical volume correlate with proneness to pride and gratitude. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(11), 1676-1683. Zahn, R., Moll, J., Iyengar, V., Huey, E. D., Tierney, M., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Social conceptual impairments in frontotemporal lobar degeneration with right anterior temporal hypometabolism. Brain, 132(3), 604-616.

[4] McCraty, R., & Childre, D. (2004). The grateful heart: The psychophysiology of appreciation. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), Series in affective science. The psychology of gratitude (pp. 230–255). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[5] https://www.uclahealth.org/news/health-benefits-gratitude

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