10 Benefits of Gratitude
This Thanksgiving, many families will be gathering around the dinner table with their friends and families to celebrate the infamous “Turkey Day.” Many families have a tradition of going around the table and sharing what each person is thankful for. For me, this always gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that I absolutely loved but didn’t experience very often. Unfortunately, many people today do not practice gratitude regularly. It’s a shame because it has so many more benefits than the warm fuzzy feeling that I mentioned. The list is quite impressive.
1. Gratitude makes us happier.
Gratitude makes us feel more gratitude. While in a grateful mood, we will feel gratitude more frequently, when we do feel gratitude it will be more intense and held for longer, and we will feel gratitude for more things at the same time.
In five words – gratitude triggers positive feedback loops.
After repeated exposure to the same emotion-producing stimulus, we tend to experience less of the emotion. Put more simply, we get use to the good things that happen to us. This also means that we get used to the bad things that happen to us. Those who have been disabled have a remarkable ability to rebound – initially, they may feel terrible, but after months or years, they are on average just as happy as everyone else.
2. Gratitude makes us more optimistic.
Gratitude is strongly correlated with optimism. Optimism, in turn, makes us happier, improves our health, and has been shown to increase lifespan by as much as a few years. I’d say a 5 minute a day gratitude journal would be worth it just for this benefit.
Show me the science.
In one study of keeping a weekly gratitude journal, participants showed a 5% increase in optimism.
In another study, keeping a daily gratitude journal resulted in a 15% increase in optimism.
Optimism is significantly correlated with gratitude. The above studies show that it isn’t just correlation – increasing one’s level of gratitude increases one’s level of optimism.
How does gratitude increase optimism? The act of gratitude is the act of focusing on the good in life. If we perceive our current life to be good, we will also believe our future life to be good.
3. Gratitude reduces materialism.
Materialism is strongly correlated with reduced well-being and increased rates of mental disorder. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more. The problem with materialism is that it makes people feel less competent, reduces feelings of relatedness and gratitude, reduces their ability to appreciate and enjoy the good in life, generates negative emotions, and makes them more self-centered.
Why is materialism negatively correlated with happiness and well-being? The pursuit of wealth and power has been shown in dozens of studies to be a highly inefficient method of increasing well-being and happiness. To be sure, if your income doubles you will be slightly happier. But how much effort do you think is involved in doubling your income? How many sacrifices are required? Motivational speakers will tell you that the money is worth the sacrifices. I disagree.
Applying that same level of energy towards strengthening one’s relationships, cultivating compassion and gratitude, and so on much more reliably creates positive, transformative change.
How does gratitude reduce materialism?
Materialism flows from two sources: role models and insecurity.
Americans are inundated with materialistic role models every day: from advertisements which highlight materialistic themes, to celebrity culture which glorifies the rich and frivolous, to business culture in which we are told our dreams should be to be rich and powerful. Gratitude helps by reducing our tendency to compare ourselves to those with a higher social status.
Those who are insecure, that is, those that have not had their basic psychological needs met (e.g. those who lack confidence, come from a poor background, or had unsupportive parents), are more likely to be materialistic. Gratitude is an effective strategy for reducing insecurity. A grateful emotion is triggered when we perceive an act of benevolence directed towards us. Those who are dispositionally ungrateful are therefore less likely to perceive acts of benevolence, even if they are surrounded by a loving environment.
Flipped around, those who cultivate an attitude of gratitude are more likely to perceive an environment of benevolence, which in turn causes their brains to assume they are in an environment full of social support, which in turn kills insecurity and materialism.
4. Gratitude makes us less self-centered.
The very nature of gratitude is to focus on others (on their acts of benevolence). In this regard, gratitude practice can be better than self-esteem therapy. Self-esteem therapy focuses the individual back on themselves: I’m smart, I look good, I can succeed, etc….
That can work, but it can also make us narcissistic or even back-fire and lower self-esteem.
5. Gratitude increases self-esteem.
Imagine a world where no one helps you. Despite you’re asking and pleading, no one helps you.
Now imagine a world where many people help you all of the time for no other reason than that they like you. In which world do you think you would have more self-esteem? Gratitude helps to create a world like that.
How does gratitude create a more supportive social dynamic? Gratitude does this in two ways:
Gratitude has been shown in multiple studies to make people kinder and more friendly, and that because of that, grateful people have more social capital. This means that grateful people are more likely to receive help from others for no reason other than that they are liked and appreciated.
Gratitude increases your recognition of benevolence. For example, a person with low self-esteem may view an act of kindness with a skeptical eye, thinking that the benefactor is trying to get something from them. A grateful person would take the kindness at face value, believing themselves to be a person worthy of receiving no-strings-attached kindness.
6. Gratitude improves your sleep.
Gratitude increases sleep quality, reduces the time required to fall asleep, and increases sleep duration. Said differently, gratitude can help with insomnia.
The key is what’s on our minds as we’re trying to fall asleep. If it’s worries about the kids, or anxiety about work, the level of stress in our body will increase, reducing sleep quality, keeping us awake, and cutting our sleep short.
If it’s thinking about a few things we have to be grateful for today, it will induce the relaxation response, knock us out, and keep us that way. Yes – gratitude is a (safe and free) sleep aid.
Don’t believe me?
In one study of 65 subjects with a chronic pain condition, those who were assigned a daily gratitude journal to be completed at night reported half an hour more sleep than the control group.
In another study of 400 healthy people, those participants who had higher scores on a gratitude test also had significantly better sleep. They reported faster time to sleep, improved sleep quality, increased sleep duration, and less difficulty staying awake during the day. This is not because their life was simply better – levels of gratitude are more dependent on personality and life perspective than on life situation.
7. Gratitude keeps you away from the doctor.
Gratitude can’t cure cancer (neither can positive thinking), but it can strengthen your physiological functioning.
Positive emotion improves health. The details are complicated, but the overall picture is not – if you want to improve your health, improve your mind. This confidence comes from 137 research studies.
Gratitude is a positive emotion. It’s not a far stretch that some of the benefits (e.g. better coping & management of terminal conditions like cancer and HIV, faster recovery from certain medical procedures, positive changes in immune system functioning, more positive health behavior, etc…) apply to gratitude as well.
Some recent science shows just that – those who engage in gratitude practices have been shown to feel less pain, go to the doctor less often, have lower blood pressure, and be less likely to develop a mental disorder.
How does gratitude improve my health? The science on how is still unclear. Here are two ideas:
Gratitude reduces levels of stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Stress, in turn, has been shown to disrupt healthy body functioning (e.g. disrupting the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, the immune system, our sleep, etc…).
Gratitude encourages pro-health behavior like exercising and paying attention to health risks.
8. Gratitude increases your energy levels.
Gratitude and vitality are strongly correlated – the grateful are much more likely to report physical and mental vigor.
People with high levels of vitality tend to have some of the same traits that highly grateful people do, like high levels of optimism and life satisfaction.
Gratitude increases physical and mental well-being, which in turn increases energy levels.
9. Gratitude increases mental strength.
For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for —even during the worst times—fosters resilience.
Those that have more gratitude have a more pro-active coping style, are more likely to have and seek out social support in times of need, are less likely to develop PTSD, and are more likely to grow in times of stress.
10. Gratitude makes our memories happier.
Our memories are not set in stone, like data stored on a hard drive. There are dozens of ways our memories get changed over time – we remember things as being worse than they actually were, as being longer or shorter, people as being kinder or crueler, as being more or less interesting, and so on.
Experiencing gratitude in the present makes us more likely to remember positive memories, and actually transforms some of our neutral or even negative memories into positive ones.
Gratitude is no cure-all, but it is a massively underutilized tool for improving life-satisfaction and true happiness.
— Stacy Peters