mental health benefits for gratitude journalling

Scientific Benefits of Gratitude and How to Use It [2020]

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The Benefits Of Gratitude And How To Use It (PLUS More)

Are you wanting to improve your mood or be happier in general?

Learn about this powerful emotion and how it can change your brain, your relationships and your life!

I engage in this daily gratitude practice and feel an intense sense of well-being and positive emotions flood my body

The benefits of daily gratitude go far beyond simply feeling good or experiencing a significant increase in nervous system strength and resilience.

You’re going to discover what gratitude is, why gratitude is one of the most prized and protected parts of my day, the astonishing physiological and psychological benefits of a daily gratitude practice, and step-by-step instructions to start a gratitude practice.

What Is Gratitude?

 

What is gratitude?  Are there benefits to it? Is there really a concrete definition of gratitude?

If you’ve scoured the internet, you may have come across Dr. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading authority on gratitude.

Throughout history, gratitude has been categorized as an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, and a coping response.

The word gratitude itself is derived from the Latin root gratia, which means “grace,” “graciousness,” or “gratefulness,” and all derivatives from this Latin root have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving or getting something for nothing.

This means that the object of gratitude is other-directed and that gratitude stems from the perception of a positive personal outcome, not necessarily deserved or earned, that is due to the actions of another person.

Gratitude results from a two-step cognitive process:

  1. recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome
  2. recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.

A consensus among the world’s religious and ethical writers is that human beings are morally obligated to feel and express gratitude in response to receiving a benefit, which is likely why gratitude is a highly prized human trait worldwide and across a host of religions, from  Christian to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and beyond.

Gratitude is part of the essence of being a human being.

Even with it being a powerful emotion, it’s easy to prioritize rushing, achieving, worrying, complaining, being frustrated and engaging in every other aspect of life that easily distract us from simply stopping to be grateful.

That’s been the case for me.

It’s something that I’ve been working on – enjoying the moment with gratitude. One example is on my way walking to work there’s a brief period where there’s this heavenly smell, very similar to a campfire smell. It lasts about a block. So I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and enjoy the moment…until I hit the McDonald’s smell and carry on.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of the power of gratitude for the mind, body, and spirit – which include scientifically proven facts about gratitude. After that, we can look at how you can use gratitude to improve your life, energy, health, and well-being.

Scientific Benefits of Gratitude and How to Use It [2020] 1
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The Benefits of Gratitude

1) Improves Your Mental Health

Being grateful improves your mental strength and fosters intense resilience

Gratitude is able to reduce a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Dr. Robert Emmons has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being.

His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.

Gratitude can also increase overall mental strength.

For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma.

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.

Another 2003 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people with neuromuscular diseases who kept “gratitude journals” reported a greater sense of well-being and more positive moods at the end of the study, compared with those who didn’t make the lists.

A 2006 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Being aware of all you have to be thankful for, even during the worst times of your life, fosters an intense resilience that helps you battle stress and get through tough times.

Literally stopping and smelling the roses has a scientific benefit, appreciating the meaningful things and people in our lives play a larger role in our happiness.

There are a number of other studies to show the highlight of gratitude and our mental health, including:

– A study in 2010 found that being thankful has been shown to predict a significantly lower risk of a range of diagnoses including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, drug “abuse” or dependence, and the risk of bulimia nervosa

A 2014 study by researchers in the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, which found that gratitude increases happiness.

A 2015 study published in the International Business Research journal showed that collective gratitude is important for organizations. Among other things, said researchers, gratitude can reduce turnover intention, foster employees’ organizational commitment, lead to positive organizational outcomes, and help in “eliminating the toxic workplace emotions, attitudes and negative emotions such as envy, anger and greed in today’s highly competitive work environment.”

Gratitude also is associated with lower fatigue, better sleep, lower depression, and increased cardiac function, according to a 2015 study from UC San Diego, which included researcher Deepak Chopra.

” TWEET” Gratitude is associated with lower fatigue, better sleep, lower depressive symptoms, and increased cardiac function

Two studies in 2014 from Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that both gratitude and acts of kindness have a strong impact on positive emotions. This impact of positive emotions is especially interesting when you look at the work of Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of Biology of Belief, Dr. Jerry Tennant, author of Healing is Voltage, or Dr. David Hawkins, author of Healing & Recovery.

They all draw extremely strong correlations between positive emotions, quantum physics, changes in protein configurations and cell membrane voltage and overall physical well-being and health. If you haven’t seen the documentary “Heal” on Netflix, I highly suggest it.

From a psychological standpoint, gratitude may act as a natural antidepressant in some people. Though we wouldn’t use it as a stand-alone treatment for depression or anxiety, it would be supplemental. We’ve written about the top nutrients needed for depression if you want to learn more

When we take the time to ask what we are grateful for, specific neural circuits have activated that result in increased production of dopamine and serotonin, and these neurotransmitters then travel through neural pathways to the “bliss” center of the brain – similar to the mechanisms of many antidepressants.

Practicing gratitude daily may be a way to naturally create the same effects of medications and create feelings of contentment.

Gratitude also increases blood flow and activity in the hypothalamus, the master gland that controls feel-good hormones such as oxytocin.

2 | Improves Your Physical Health

In a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.

Though not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health. A similar effect to people who eat more plants compared to meat, they’re more likely to exercise and not smoke.

They’re more likely to exercise and attend regular doctor check-ups, not because they’re sick, but because they have a greater sense to do so – which likely contributes to enhanced longevity. 

Yes, this can be attributed to the fact that those who feel better physically tend to be more thankful and happy – but this is not always the case. 

Dozens of studies have shown that when people actively take the time to list the things they are grateful for, they feel far better mentally and physically than participants who haven’t done the same.

Gratitudes benefits may not only be correlational but, in many cases, causal.

A 2009 paper in Counselling Psychology Review reported that gratitude can act “directly, as a causal agent of well-being; and indirectly, as a means of buffering against negative states and emotions.”

There’s also a parasympathetic effect, rest-and-digest, a calming part of the nervous system.

This produces a host of positive benefits for the body, including decreasing cortisol levels and increasing oxytocin-the he powerful bonding hormone in relationships that makes us feel so good after touching, hugging or sexual intercourse.

A study from the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine discovered that more grateful people have better heart health, less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms – gratitude is good for your heart.

In that study, the researchers looked at 186 men and women, average age 66, who already had some damage to their heart. Either through years of sustained high blood pressure or as a result of a heart attack or even an infection of the heart. 

They each filled out a questionnaire to rate how grateful they felt for the people, places or things in their lives. The more grateful people were, the healthier they were -with a less depressed mood, better sleep and greater overall energy. 

When the researchers performed blood tests to measure inflammation and plaque buildup in the arteries, they discovered significantly lower levels of these health issues among those who were grateful – an indication of better heart health.

Dr. Paul Mills, the head researcher, then conducted a follow-up study to look closer at gratitude. He tested 70 patients for heart disease and noting biological indications of heart disease – inflammation and heart rhythm.

He asked half of his patients to keep a journal most days of the week and write about two or three things they were grateful for – their kids, spouses, pets, travel, and food. 

After two months, Dr. Mills retested the patients and found significant health benefits for the patients who wrote in their journals. The inflammation levels were reduced, and heart rhythm improved. When he compared their heart disease risk before and after journal writing, there was a decrease in risk after two months of writing in their journals.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s known for it’s “pro-social” behaviours, affection, trust, and generosity. 

In a study at The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, they looked at 77 married heterosexual and monogamous couples and found that gratitude is the “glue” that binds them together.

The reason gratitude brings us together, the new study suggests, is because of its relationship to our big O. 

Yes, you heard that correctly…We’re talking about our oxytocin system! Though, I’m sure the other thing you may have been thinking about certainly helps too. 

The researchers were curious about the closer kinds of social bonds, sought out couples in ongoing romantic relationships and invited them into their lab, where they were given an opportunity to say “thanks” to their partner – a situation in which oxytocin would be particularly likely to reveal its influence.

The 77 couples completed brief nightly questionnaires for each of the 14 nights between visits. At the beginning of the study, they were also asked to fill out a questionnaire on how satisfied they felt in their relationship.

Once in the lab, they were asked to choose something big or small—but something specific—that their partner did for him or her and for which they felt grateful. After they said their thanks, both partners would privately rate their feelings of love, positivity, and responsiveness. 

While they filled out these self-reports, four “judges” submitted their ratings on what they’d observed of these couples’ expressions of gratitude. Once everyone’s pencils were down, then the partners would swap roles and repeat.

After that, each partner got to be part of two different interactions: one in which they expressed gratitude and one in which they received an expression of gratitude.

It was time to get physical after that. The researchers took a saliva sample, looking for a particular gene known as CD38—a key regulator of oxytocin release and therefore a big player in social interactions. 

Researchers were hoping to find a genetic basis for the pattern of effects they’d observed as their participants gave and received thanks. This step confirmed their hypothesis: CD38 is, in fact, significantly associated with several positive psychological and behavioural outcomes that are all intimately related to the expression of gratitude.

The participants reported that they felt more loving but also more peaceful, amused, and proud. They also perceived their partner as being more understanding, validating, caring, and generally more responsive. 

They were more likely to have reported spontaneously thanking their partner for something they’d appreciated on any given day. And they were more satisfied with the quality of their relationship overall.

So they then ran a different study. 

This time, they didn’t ask participants to say thanks. Instead, they asked them to share one positive personal event. Like those in the first study, participants did indeed feel joy and enthusiasm. 

But, unlike in the first study, no pattern emerged at a genetic level. 

In this case, the presence of CD38 could not systematically predict the presence of these positive feelings.

This means the oxytocin system isn’t just selective toward joy or feeling good. It’s selective toward something specifically about gratitude, probably to the extent that sharing gratitude – in this case essentially saying that “my happiness is due to your role in my life” – recognizes our social or relationship interdependence. 

There are certainly other studies that suggest that humans are, by nature, social creatures, but this study may be the first to suggest that our emotional reaction to a kind word or deed is rooted deeply in our physiology and is a part of our evolutionary history.

In summary, from a decrease in cortisol to a massive drop in inflammation, to a boost in feel-good hormones and beyond, there is a drastic, measurable physical and physiological benefit to being grateful.

3) Gratitude Makes You Sleep Better

Gratitude journaling before bed can help calm the mind and people who are grateful have better sleeps

Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep quality, decrease the amount of time needed to fall asleep, and increase sleep duration. 

Researchers from Hong Kong examined the complex relationship between gratitude, sleep, anxiety, and depression in 224 patients with chronic pain.

They found a link between gratitude and depression, as the patients who expressed more gratitude experienced fewer depressive symptoms.

Sleep played a significant role in the gratitude-anxiety relationship; the patients who expressed more gratitude experienced better sleep, which in turn improved their symptoms of anxiety.

Deep non-rem sleep is a natural anxiety inhibitor, insufficient sleep can increase anxiety levels by 30%

Something as simple as writing down a list of things you are thankful for at the end of the day can also help people sleep better. I used this personally to help me fall asleep and clear my head of my thoughts when I was having trouble sleeping – it worked wonders. I don’t need to do it anymore and have transitioned to using gratitude in the mornings.

Research backs this up too.

2009 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that those who expressed gratitude more often slept better and longer than those who didn’t.

A study published in 2011 in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, looked at University and college students who have persistent problems sleeping because their minds are racing with stimulating thoughts and worries found that gratitude intervention helped university students quiet their minds and sleep better.

Another study 2015 published in the Journal of Health Psychology also demonstrated that gratitude helps improve quality of sleep and lowers blood pressure.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, you can our article we’ve written

4) Gratitude Rewires Your Brain

Gratitude changes your brain and people who are grateful have higher blood flows to certain areas of the brain

A brain-scanning study from NeuroImage brings us a litter closer to understanding how gratitude can achieve these effects.

Their study suggests that even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, the human brain remains wired to feel extra thankful.

A study from the Indiana University researchers recruited 43 people who were undertaking counselling sessions as a treatment for anxiety or depression. 

Twenty-two of the participants were assigned to a gratitude intervention, which meant that for the first three sessions of their weekly counselling – this group spent 20 minutes writing a letter in which they expressed their gratitude to a recipient. 

The other participants were the control group, they simply attended their counselling as usual without performing the gratitude task.

Three months after their counselling was over, all of the participants completed a Pay It Forward gratitude task in an fMRI brain scanner. 

Things get a little confusing here, but stick with me: each participant was given various amounts of money by imaginary benefactors whose names and photos, to add to the realism of the task, appeared on a screen.

The researchers told the participants that each benefactor said that if the participant wanted to express their gratitude for the monetary gift, they’d appreciate it if the participant gave some or all of the donation to a named third party – once again, identified by photo and name, or a named charity. 

The researchers found that, on average, the more money a participant gave away, and the stronger the feelings of gratitude the participant reported feeling, the more activity they exhibited in the frontal, parietal, and occipital regions of the brain. 

These neural-activity patterns appeared somewhat distinct from those that usually appear when brain-scan subjects complete tasks associated with emotions like empathy or thinking about other people’s points of view – which indicates that gratitude is indeed an incredibly unique emotion!

The participants, more interestingly, who completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group but also, months later. They also showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the fMRI scanner. 

The researchers described these as “profound” and “long-lasting” neural effects that were “particularly noteworthy.” 

One of the main regions that showed the increased sensitivity was the pregenual anterior cingulate, which is involved in predicting the effects of one’s actions on other people. 

This key brain region identified, which has also been identified in another this study, suggests that there is a neurological location where gratitude resides.

The takeaway from this study is that gratitude works, at least in part, because it has a self-perpetuating nature: the more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its proven psychological benefits. 

What fires together, wires together.

Whatever your thoughts or actions that you repeat, makes it easier to follow said action 

The more practice you can give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset, meaning you can think of your brain as having an actual gratitude muscle that can be exercised and strengthened. This also means that the more effort you make to feel gratitude in the present, the more the feeling of gratitude will come to you spontaneously in the future.

It seems to help explain another established finding, gratitude can create a positive feedback loop. The more thankful you feel, the more likely you are to be empathetic, understanding of others, and act prosocially towards them – which can cause them to feel grateful and set up a positive cascade. Our emotions and beliefs can not only affect ourselves but also the minds and bodies of the people around us. 

In another study on the ability of gratitude to change the brain, researchers at USC’s Shoah Foundation, which houses the world’s largest collection of Holocaust testimonies, poured over hundreds of hours of footage to identify compelling stories of survivors receiving aid from others. 

The survivors talked about receiving life-saving help from other people – from being hidden by strangers to being given a new pair of shoes during a wintertime march. They also talked about receiving gifts such as a morsel of bread or a bed at night.

These stories were then turned into 48 brief vignettes (a small illustration/episode/description), which the 23 study participants read while lying in a brain scanner. 

One of the vignettes said, “A woman at the immigration agency stamps your passport so you can flee to England.” For each vignette, participants were asked to immerse themselves in the context of the Holocaust, imagine how they would feel if they were in the same situation, and then rate how grateful they felt – all while the fMRI machine recorded their brain activity.

Once again, the most grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). 

These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding, rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and high levels of empathy – the ability to understand the mental states of others.

While a lot of people associate gratitude with just receiving a nice thing, the researchers found was more interesting than that. The participant’s brain scans showed that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is built around how others seek to benefit us. 

Gratitude isn’t just about receiving a gift or reward – it doesn’t even show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves and changes more complex areas of the brain which include morality, connecting with others, and adopting others’ perspectives

3 More Benefits Of A Personal Daily Gratitude Practice

Besides the scientific reasons to start a daily gratitude practice, there are reasons as well!

Besides the proven benefits of gratitude, what are the other benefits that it can have?

How can you start and end each day with conscious and mindful gratitude, so that positive emotions, empathy, better sleep, better health, fewer aches and pains, a more resilient nervous system and all the other benefits you’ve just discovered begin to overflow in your life?

1) Accountability

When I first started my gratitude journal, I needed it to be honest. I wasn’t in the best mindset.

It helped me transform me and move through that period. Starting a daily gratitude journal in the morning gave me accountability and made my day easier to get through and eventually changed my outlook. It forced me to stay accountable to myself to complete each day in the journal. 

If you’re part of a family or in a relationship with a loved one, I recommend bringing your gratitude journals to the breakfast or dinner table to share your entries and to use as fodder for deep and meaningful conversation around a meal.

2) Stillness

When you begin a daily practice of gratitude journaling, you start your day with something other than jumping into emails, checking social media or launching into a shower, chores or a workout – whatever it may be.

Rather than feeling rushed, stressed, or in a bad mood, you’ll discover that when you take just a few patient minutes to begin your day with journaling, you’ll feel more relaxed, in a better mood, and looking forward to the day. 

Beginning each day with patience and stillness is an incredibly calming way to live your life and can change your outlook on life

3) Structure

Having structure in your life can calm the mind and ease anxiety, this is why there are benefits to making your bed every day. You’ll have to find an area and time with what works best for you. If you’re just beginning a gratitude journal, it should be simple and structured – plus easy to integrate into your life so it’s not “work.”

Beginning each day with this simple, reliable structure allowed me to quickly develop and maintain a positive habit of journaling.

How do you start being grateful?

There are many questions that you can ask yourself to start with gratitude but I’ll list a couple of ways to do it

I’ve found these to be the most valuable that is fully optimized for the mind, body and spirit for the day. It allows you to enter the day with a mindset to go out of your way to help and serve others. 

Question #1. What am I grateful for today?

It’s simple.

As you learned earlier, the reasoning behind this question is built on proven principles of positive psychology and the physical and mental effects of gratitude.

Know I do suggest writing for gratitude but you’re able to with anything that you’re doing – as you’re just waking up in bed or as you shower. It’s best if you can give in and feel the emotion, embrace it. My favourites are sitting outside with a book and coffee while the sun is on my face or walking through a trail with my dogs looking at the trees. 

It can be the simplest thing – birds chirping, the crisp morning air, the soft skin of your partner that you woke up to, or maybe you shaved your legs and got into freshly washed sheets – anything. I love writing down because it seems to register better in my brain (and there’s some science to support that)

It may not always be easy though; you don’t have a great night of sleep, you wake up with the sniffles, your phone is blowing up with texts/emails, or it’s a dark, stormy day outside. 

This is where the magic of gratefulness takes over because you’re suddenly able to find the silver lining in any situation, like how wonderful your toes feel when you wiggle them!

Questions #2. Who can I serve, help or pray for today?

While most of our journals include daily affirmations focused on ourselves, asking what you can do for others is fantastic for our wellbeing.

This doesn’t have to be a huge thing, remember to keep it simple. It can be a simple random act of kindness where you buy someone the coffee behind you in line, inviting friends over for dinner, volunteering at your local community. It can be deeper than that, maybe you have a friend that is having a hard time, so you decide to bake them cookies and take it to them.

This can be rolling over to your partner in bed and telling them how much you appreciate them. 

Remember, your energy is contagious and you can spread gratitude to others

Questions To Ask Yourself To Be Grateful

  • What’s one kind or thoughtful thing someone did for you recently?
  • Who is always there for you, and how do you feel about them?
  • Who has helped you become the person you are today, and what’s the top thing you’d thank them for?
  • Who’s someone who always really listens when you talk, and how does that affect you?
  • How have your spiritual beliefs or practices fulfilled you recently?
  • What’s the best thing that happened today so far?
  • What’s something that inspired or touched you recently?
  • Has anyone done anything recently that made your job easier?
  • What’s one thing you enjoyed about doing your job recently?
  • Can you think of any non-physical gifts you’ve received recently—someone’s time, attention, understanding, or support?
  • What about today has been better than yesterday?
  • Who have you enjoyed being around recently, and why?
  • How have you used your talents and abilities recently, and what have you enjoyed about doing that?
  • What have you learned recently that will help you in the future?
  • What made you laugh or smile today?

Conclusion

You can use gratitude at any time of the day but it comes down to why you might want to use it.

I find it best personally to do it either in the morning or at night right before bed.

I’ve also used it in a specific moment when I was pretty sad and down.

Starting it at the beginning of the day is a great way to create an intention and change your whole day.

While finishing the day with gratitude is a simple way to reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep and calm the mind. If you’re having trouble falling sleeping, you can try this breathing technique to fall asleep faster

I don’t use gratitude journalling every day now but I try to incorporate it into my life almost daily.

I found it incredibly helpful to keep me accountable and create a habit out of it with a daily morning practice.

I use gratitude now where I do it at the moment and as a “walking meditation.” I will be thinking about what I’m grateful for during my walks with the dogs, to work, or on long hikes. 

How will you use it though?

Let us know in the comments on how you’re going to start your new gratitude practice or if you’re having trouble incorporating it into your schedule

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