5 Science-Backed Reasons to Practice Gratitude, And How to Stick With It
You’ve likely heard it countless times: Gratitude is good for you. Maybe you’ve even tried adopting a gratitude practice but it just wouldn’t stick. Or maybe you’ve been a bit skeptical. Many of us dismiss gratitude as cliché or futile when life gets frustrating.
According to therapist Tiffany Lovell, while gratitude doesn’t change challenging situations, it can “soften our soul to be able to rise above the difficulties and see them with different perspectives.”
Lovell calls gratitude a superpower that most of us don’t even realize we have access to. Here’s how to connect to your gratitude—and why it really matters.
What is gratitude, anyway?
Simply put, “gratitude is the acknowledgment and deep appreciation for the blessings we are given,” says Reverend Connie L. Habash, a marriage and family therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, spiritual mentor, and author of “Awakening from Anxiety.”
Is gratitude an emotion? Attitude? Action?
Actually, it can be all three. Leading gratitude expert Robert Emmons notes that gratitude is a choice. While we might not always feel grateful, we can still be grateful, writes Emmons.
Science-backed benefits of gratitude
Gratitude isn’t a cure-all. But decades’ worth of research have shown that gratitude can boost well-being. Most studies explore people’s natural tendency toward gratitude or have participants practice a gratitude intervention. Here’s just a snippet of gratitude’s gains:
Gratitude pro: Positive emotions
Gratitude has been linked to a flurry of feel-good emotions. In one study, naturally being more grateful predicted greater hope and happiness. In the same study, participants who wrote about a past situation they were thankful for also reported more hope and happiness.
A 2019 study found that participants who wrote about factors that contributed to a personal success that they were grateful for had higher levels of positive emotions than participants who didn’t perform the intervention.
Gratitude may even help us cultivate a generally positive attitude toward life and reframe negativity, suggests this 2019 study of college students who recorded their gratitude twice a week for a month.
Gratitude pro: Better relationships
A 2015 study found that participants who felt appreciated and valued by their spouses felt better about their marriages, were more committed to them, and believed in their lasting power.
Researchers also found that expressions of gratitude buffered against negative communication patterns—like couples criticizing and withdrawing from each other.
In another study, participants who started expressing gratitude toward their loved ones reported greater satisfaction in their relationships six weeks later. Participants also felt like their friendships had improved.
Gratitude pro: Improved heart health
A 2015 study found that people with heart damage who were more grateful slept better, were less depressed, and less fatigued. They also felt more confident about their ability to care for themselves.
In a follow-up study, researchers asked some of the participants to keep gratitude journals for two months. The people who penned their appreciations had reduced markers of inflammation and increased heart rate variability—a measure of decreased cardiac risk.
Gratitude pro: Burnout defense
Stress and burnout can hammer our health. And with today’s fast-paced and unpredictable world, many of us are feeling the emotional and physical strain. However, gratitude may help.
According to a 2018 study, male firefighters in Korea who reported greater levels of gratitude experienced less stress, exhaustion, and cynicism (the last two being burnout factors). The researchers concluded: “These findings suggest that gratitude acts as an independent protective factor against stress and burnout.”
And people in another stressful job—health care professionals—reported less stress and depression after they wrote down what they were grateful for twice a week for a month, found a 2015 study.
Writing gratitude letters may also be powerful. In a 2020 study of 1575 health care workers, spending just 7 minutes penning a gratitude letter to someone who positively affected their lives reduced participants’ emotional burnout up to a week later.
Gratitude pro: Growth and resilience
Gratitude may also help us deal with stressful or traumatic experiences. According to a 2019 study, breast cancer patients who practiced gratitude—versus those who kept a daily journal—reported greater:
- acceptance of the illness
- perceived social support
Other research has also found that having higher levels of gratitude promoted greater post-traumatic growth among police officers who experienced more stress.
How to practice gratitude
By now, you’re probably convinced that yes, having an attitude of gratitude is well worth it. But how, exactly, do you cultivate that year-round? Gratitude doesn’t have to be complicated or another task on your already too-long to-do list. Try these nine traditional and lesser-known ways to practice gratitude on a regular basis.
Anchor your gratitude.
Anchoring your gratitude, says Lovell, simply means adding gratitude to an activity you’re already doing—like brushing your teeth or filling your water bottle. This teaches “your brain to associate gratitude with some of the most basic things you do each day,” she says.
When you identify your anchor, “list as many things as you can think of that you’re grateful for.”
Ground into gratitude.
If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, you can use gratitude to create a safe, sacred space within you. Lovell uses this practice with her clients:
- Put your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your stomach.
- Close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Imagine the energy within you moving through your right arm and into your heart and then over through your left arm into your stomach.
- Name three things you can smell, hear, and feel, savoring each one.
- Take another deep breath and open your eyes.
Create a gratitude jar.
Place a jar in an easy-to-see and reach space, along with a pen and small pieces of paper, says Habash. Any time during the day, jot down what you’re grateful for. Be specific and remember that small things count, too.
For example, you might write:
- Savoring a hot bowl of soup after a long day
- Laughing with my best friend about absolutely nothing
- Seeing a star-filled sky
At the end of the month or whenever the jar gets full, read the notes. “It will continue to inspire you in your gratitude,” adds Habash.
Post gentle reminders.
Gratitude grows the more we practice it. But it’s easy to miss those meaningful moments as you’re moving about your day and checking off tasks.
Habash suggests a simple solution: Place sticky notes around your home, car, and office to remind you to “pay attention to the little things you wouldn’t normally appreciate.”
Pen a gratitude letter.
Think about the people in your life who’ve been especially supportive in various ways—connecting you with a job you love, making you laugh, always remembering your birthday.
Make a list, and start with one person. Your letter doesn’t have to be formal. It can even be a bulleted list, or a few lines. Either way, let the person know why you’re so appreciative.
To make this practice easy and accessible, stick stamps to a stack of postcards, suggests Rachel Kanarowski, a mindfulness educator at the Chicago Department of Public Health and founder of Year of Living Better, a mindfulness skills training for toxic stress. This way, any time someone special comes to mind, you can quickly jot down a few lines of appreciation and mail it right away.
Anticipate your gratitude.
We don’t have to only appreciate things that have already happened. We can also savor experiences that haven’t yet arrived, says Habash. Visualize anything from seeing faraway friends to accomplishing a goal.
“As you allow yourself to experience the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of what it is like to have what you yearn for, you create the experience of already having, which supports more abundance and cultivates a sense of fulfillment in the present moment,” she says.
When was the last time you acknowledged a win—big or small? Or thanked yourself for handling a difficult situation or getting through a stressful day?
What often gets left out of our gratitude practices is gratitude for ourselves. While it might feel uncomfortable at first, over time, says Kanarowski, you’ll develop more self-compassion (another great thing, as self-compassion also has myriad benefits).
For her self-gratitude practice, Kanarowski jots down one thing she’s proud of on her calendar every night before bed.