Many people swear by gratitude and its healing power. Gratitude can be found everywhere, from the ancient Buddhist teachings to the course curriculum of modern spiritual teachers and self-help gurus.
But what does science have to say about it? Can we see something more than a mere placebo effect suggesting gratitude truly has a profound impact on well-being?
The short answer is – yes! As we’ll see, there’s a ton of research on gratitude – and scientists who have dedicated their entire careers to it. In fact, IONS was a pioneer in gratitude research. IONS started studying the subject over 10 years ago including how gratitude changes the brain.
Benefits of gratitude
In times of advanced biohacking gadgets and premium-priced retreats, it can be easy to think that something as simple as gratitude isn’t that powerful. Plus, it’s completely free!
Sounds too good to be true?
Not really! Gratitude has been studied within psychology and neuroscience. The latter showed that brain regions related to stress relief and interpersonal bonding are activated when we feel gratitude (Glenn Fox, University of Southern California). Stress is toxic, so experiencing stress relief probably comes with health benefits.
If we assume that our thoughts, emotions, and overall energetic state creates our reality, gratitude should create a brighter, more enjoyable life experience.
Other benefits of gratitude that have been echoed in several studies:
- Lower stress
- Reduce pain
- Improve immunity
- Balance blood pressure
- Strengthen heart function
Another peer-reviewed study measured the value of gratitude journaling. Participants were divided into three groups. One journaled on gratitude, the second on their deepest thoughts and feelings, and the third didn’t journal.
At first, the mental health scores showed no differences. After three months, however, the gratitude group had higher mental health scores than the two other groups. The results suggest that the benefits of gratitude journaling don’t come from the journaling itself as much as the gratitude part.
Another study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough came to the same conclusion. They let participants journal daily. Participants were divided into three groups – one focused on the positive things they had experienced, the other on the negative, and the third on events that had affected them in any way, positive or negative. After 10 weeks, the gratitude group had a more positive view of life. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor’s office than those focusing on the negatives.
A University of Pennsylvania study led by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman (who can be considered the father of positive psychology) tested various positive psychology interventions on a group of 411 participants. Writing a gratitude letter to someone who had meant a lot to them, but whom they had never truly shown appreciation, had the biggest impact on wellbeing by far – with effects lasting for months.
From theory to transformation
Knowing about the benefits of gratitude is one thing – actually managing to apply them is a whole different one.
Fox described the power of gratitude as evolving over time, like drops of water cutting through rock. It may be because we have rewired the brain’s default networks, which doesn’t happen instantly but with repetition over time.
It seems like cultivating gratitude requires patience – but once it’s there, the effects are lasting.
The real transformation seems to happen when feeling thankful for everything around us becomes second nature. To get there, you can do things like
- Morning gratitude: Think of three things you are grateful for first thing in the morning. Pause and feel the emotion for each thing. Alternatively, you can add a screensaver on your phone with a photo of something or someone that evokes gratitude and set reminders.
- Meal-time gratitude: Express gratitude for what you’re eating and for the nourishment your body gets.
- Workout gratitude: Do a quick body scan before your workout and express gratitude for each part of your body.
The trick is to incorporate gratitude into something you naturally do daily or at least regularly.
You can also have a look at World Gratitude Map, a crowdfunded project where people can post what they are grateful for – big and small things. You can also subscribe to alerts for gratitude notes posted by other users. Because as the map says: gratitude is contagious.
New film: Gratitude Revealed
Gratitude Revealed is the new film from Louie Schwartzberg, the director behind the Netflix success Fantastic Fungi. Schwartzberg shares how the film was born during the pandemic from seeing people being deprived of the things we take for granted and that contribute to our well-being, such as chatting with the barista when buying a coffee or hugging a friend. He wanted to create something to comfort people and show them how we’re still connected.
How does gratitude help?
Interestingly, neuroscientist Glenn Fox got to apply his research when his mother passed away. Every day, he journaled about what he was grateful for – even the most mundane things.
Somewhat surprisingly, he says that he didn’t feel better. Rather, the pain appeared more intense. And that may be one of the healing mechanisms of gratitude: making us aware of the pain instead of running away from it, for we can only heal that which we feel. So, rather than removing the pain, it changes how we perceive it.
It seems like the power of awareness shift is central. Where attention goes, energy flows! Gratitude makes us more aware of the beauty and abundance in life – and thus makes us enjoy life more, although nothing has shifted on the outside.