35 Scientific Benefits of Gratitude: Mental Health Research Findings

35 Scientific Benefits of Gratitude: Mental Health Research Findings
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Gratitude, in mathematical logic jargon, is a primitive notion. It is a concept not defined by previously-defined concepts. Hence, dictionary definitions seem a bit circular. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.) defines it as “the state of being grateful.” Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.) defines it as “a strong feeling of appreciation” for the help received from something or someone. Surely, both definitions are correct even though they are roundabout. Understanding the concept, however, would be better if we enrich it with perspectives through the scientific lens.

Contrary to common knowledge, gratitude is more than just an individual’s emotional response that results in making other people feel appreciated. Actual scientific studies prove the benefits of gratitude that contribute to an individual’s character development and overall well-being. And in this article, we will look into these benefits and how we can achieve them.

Benefits of Gratitude Table of Contents

  1. What is gratitude?
  2. How does gratitude work?
  3. Gratitude in Practice
  4. Benefits of Gratitude
  5. Grateful Living in the Time of Pandemic

What is gratitude?

This is one of the thought-provoking questions one may ask about life. According to Robert A. Emmons, one of the key researchers in the field, gratitude has two core components—first as “an affirmation of goodness” and then as a way for us to acknowledge that the “sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves” (Emmons, 2010). This description of gratitude is quite similar to the one provided by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedectine monk and author of Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer. According to Brother David, gratefulness has two important qualities, the first being the appreciation of something you deem valuable. The second quality of gratefulness is that it must be gratis or given freely (The Gratefulness Team, 2017). Going back further in history, renowned Roman scholar Cicero claimed that gratitude is both the “parent” and the greatest of all virtues, thus earning a fundamental position in philosophical theories (Wood et al., 2007).

Moreover, gratitude is considered as one of the key religious virtues along with humility and compassion (Krause & Hayward, 2015). Furthermore, it has been scientifically recognized as a source of human strength (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). However, despite its acknowledged importance in the religious, philosophical, and scientific realm, gratitude remains as “one of the most neglected and underestimated virtues” and among the most underutilized attitudes to the point where it is ignored altogether (Emmons & McCullough, 2004, p. v). Fortunately, there are those that make “gratitude” a good part of their research in their psychology careers.

Research has found that, ironically, the often-ignored virtue is also the most sought-after reward as shown by recent studies among professionals, especially those in the medical field; specifically among physicians.

Source: Medscape Physician Compensation Report

How does gratitude work?

Neuropsychological studies on the subject of gratitude are fairly new but have nonetheless caught the interest of neuroscientific researchers. According to one study, the neural basis of gratitude does not only revolve around basic human emotions but also extends to social emotions that play crucial roles in an individual’s well-being (Wood et al., 2007). Chemical activities in various regions of the brain also indicate that gratitude correlates to moral judgment (Zahn, et al., 2008). Moreover, the differences in the behavioral expressions of gratitude may be affected by “the individual differences in a genotype for oxytocin function” (Algoe and Way, 2014), which points out the important role played by gratitude in social bonding. Furthermore, another study suggests that the brain produces dopamine in response to receiving rewards, which can be associated with the state of being grateful (Carter, 2009).

As these gratitude benefits research show, all of these neural activities in the central nervous system manifest externally as a positive emotional response of gratitude. In return, gratitude draws back benefits that go beyond emotional satisfaction and happiness.

Gratitude in Practice

Gratitude is more than a natural response—it is an attitude that can help train our brain to be more attuned to positivity. Gratitude is something you can develop as a habit, and here are several of the scientifically proven practices and exercises to improve your sense of gratitude:

  • Keeping a journal. Several studies have shown that writing down the details of positive experiences you had throughout the day, week, or month can help condition your brain to be more appreciative of the things you have to be grateful for (Oppland, 2020).
  • Using visual reminders. One of the best ways to remind ourselves of the things we have to be grateful for is through visualizations. This exercise shows how the simple act of taking pictures of the things we appreciate to have in our lives helps us visualize and reinforce gratitude (Oppland, 2020).
  • Sharing gratitude with loved ones. Small acts of kindness, especially when they come from the people we are close with (family, relatives, close friends, etc.) are sometimes overlooked. Fortunately, we can train ourselves to be more appreciative of our loved ones’ kindness. We can start by saying “thank you” to small but meaningful gestures we notice, such as loved ones checking how our day went, getting our meals ready, etc. This does not only make us more grateful for the things we have, but it also helps build a stronger relationship with the people we care about.
  • Giving gratitude letters or notes. Writing a letter of gratitude or even a thank you note to at least one person a week helps significantly improve mental health. This has been proven by a study that involved around 300 adults, all of whom were going through mental health counseling (Wong and Brown, 2018). Writing gratitude letters or notes for the people who have become your source of inspiration has also shown to increase levels of happiness and gratefulness (Oppland, 2020). In a survey by a market research company, it shows that sending appreciation in written form is still very much alive.

Source: Ask Your Target Market

There are a number of ways we can condition our minds and ourselves to incorporate gratitude into our daily lives. But mind that what is more important than choosing which method can work for us is to ensure that we are consistent in doing the exercises in order for them to be effective.

Benefits of Gratitude

USC neuroscientist Glenn Fox is the first one to present a completed study on how gratitude manifests in the brain. In terms of the health benefits brought by gratitude, he states that it relies on the amount of attention and practice you put into feeling and expressing gratitude (Linberg, 2017). But what are these benefits of gratitude and how do we get them? First, let us take a look at the scientifically proven benefits gratitude can bring to the different aspects of our well-being.

Physical Health Benefits

  1. Gratitude helps improve sleep. Cultivating gratitude throughout the day nurtures more positive thoughts that can help you drift into a more peaceful sleep. Researchers from the University of Manchester in England examined the correlation between gratitude and the thoughts before sleeping, and how these affect an individual’s sleep. Included in the study are 401 adults between 18 to 68 years old. Among the participants, 40% are recorded to have clinically impaired sleep or have sleeping disorders based on their Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) score. By using a cross-sectional questionnaire, the researchers discovered that gratitude drives negatives thoughts away, especially before bedtime, thus making more room for positive thoughts and reflections that contribute to a more peaceful and longer uninterrupted slumber (Wood et al., 2009, p. 43-48).
  2. Gratitude helps lower high blood pressure. According to Emmons, gratitude is a good form of medicine. Furthermore, clinical trials have proven that the practice of gratitude can leave lasting positive effects on a person’s health. Emmons also states that individuals who have a grateful attitude tend to be more health-conscious, such as avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol, which contributes to neutralizing the blood pressure of hypertensive patients.
  3. Gratitude helps prevent overeating. Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and expert in the psychology of eating, cites that practicing gratitude reinforces an individual’s willpower to resist excessive eating. One can do this by focusing on the food that is on the table and being grateful for it instead of thinking of the dishes they crave but are not available. By harnessing the power of gratitude, the brain also builds resistance against giving in to excessive eating tendencies.
  4. Gratitude motivates you to exercise more. An experimental study by Emmons and Michael McCullough looks into the psychological and physical effects of practicing gratitude. In this study, the participants were encouraged to keep gratitude journals that record their activities on a weekly basis. Based on the journals, those who exhibit a more grateful attitude were also the ones who engaged more in healthy physical activities, such as exercising. It is also recorded in the study that the improvement in physical activities also helps improve the participants’ outlook on life as a whole (Emmons & McCullough, 2003, pp. 377-389).
  5. Gratitude helps strengthen the immune system. Practicing gratitude improves immune function, thus decreasing the risk of contracting diseases (Sood, 2009; Emmons, 2010). This benefit of gratitude goes hand-in-hand with the improvement in the sleeping pattern.
  6. Gratitude improves pain tolerance. Studies show that the daily practice of gratitude helps lessen an individual’s sensitivity to pain (The Sports & Spinal Group, 2020). According to Bruce F. Singer, a psychologist and founding director of the Chronic Pain and Recovery Center, the practice of gratitude may not completely eliminate chronic pain, but it can be an effective pain management tool as it helps shift the focus away from the physical pain and to the more positive things instead.
  7. Gratitude helps keep glucose levels under control. Practicing gratitude has led to lower levels of Hemoglobin A1c, which is a glucose control indicator that helps in the diagnosis of diabetes. According to this study, grateful individuals have been reported to have their Hemoglobin A1c levels decrease by 9-13%.
  8. Gratitude extends the lifespan. As a positive emotion, gratitude improves an individual’s overall well-being. An example of this is how gratitude enhances optimism, which then combats the health hazards brought by fostering a pessimistic outlook in life (Boyles, 2009). According to a medical study that focuses on the risk of developing heart disease and risk for death among women, participants who scored high in optimism only had a 9% risk of developing heart illness. Optimistic women also scored 14% lower risk of dying compared to women who scored high in cynicism and hostility.
  9. Gratitude helps patients with heart illness. According to a study, the practice of gratitude contributes to reducing the biomarkers of inflammation by 7% among individuals diagnosed with congestive heart failure (UC Davis Health, 2015).

Mental, Psychological, and Spiritual Health Benefits

  1. Gratitude boosts self-confidence. A study that focuses on athletes shows that the participants with high levels of gratitude received from their coaches also experienced an increase in self-esteem over the period of six months the research was conducted (Chen and Wu, 2014, pp. 349-362).
  2. Gratitude improves patience. Among the benefits of gratitude is how it can increase your level of patience. A study conducted by a team of researchers from several universities looks into the phenomenon that leads individuals to not value long-term gratification by favoring immediate rewards. Based on the study, participants who exhibited higher levels of gratitude over little things they have on a daily basis are more likely to be patient and sensible when it comes to making financial decisions. (Northeastern University College of Science, 2014)
  3. Gratitude improves resiliency. Other gratitude benefits for mental health include factors that make us more resilient. According to a study, gratitude can promote positive outcomes after a traumatic experience, which then helps establish resilience toward the adverse effects left by a negative encounter (Vieselmeyer et al., 2017, pp. 62-69).
  4. Gratitude reduces envy and jealousy. Being envious or jealous of someone who has something you do not can only lead to resentment. Practicing gratitude can help shift the focus away from other people’s possessions and to what you have that you can be thankful for.
  5. Gratitude makes you more optimistic. Based on a study, an intervention of gratitude in life establishes a stronger positive outlook in life (Peters et al., 2013, pp. 93-100).
  6. Gratitude makes us less materialistic. The relentless pursuit of material things offers nothing more than instant but short-term gratification, which leads to the craving for more. Practicing gratitude brings the focus toward intangible but more valuable things in life that contribute to the overall well-being, such as accomplishing goals, fostering healthy relationships, nurturing career growth, maintaining a positive outlook in life, and more (Polak and McCullough, 2006).
  7. Gratitude makes you more forgiving. Gratitude is one of the core factors in the positive psychological characteristics that play significant roles in the forgiveness process (Rey & Extremera, 2014, pp. 199-204). According to a study by Lourdes Rey and Natalio Extremera from the University of Malaga in Spain, the element of gratitude has key contributions to interpersonal motivations to forgive along with optimism, emotional intelligence abilities, and the Big 5 personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism).
  8. Gratitude helps the battle against depression. While gratitude cannot cure depression, it can help bring an individual more positive interventions into the life of someone suffering from it. Incorporating the practice of gratitude brings forth positive experiences and reduces stress-inducing hormones while increasing “feel-good” ones. Gratitude also strengthens personal relationships, which then reinforces the support system around someone suffering from depression and anxiety.
  9. Gratitude helps in recovery from addiction. Individuals suffering from substance abuse fare better in their road to recovery when the practice of gratitude is incorporated into their rehabilitation treatment. This is because individuals who have become addicted to drugs and alcohol tend to be engrossed in selfish thoughts. To counter this mindset, recovering individuals are encouraged to cultivate gratitude in order to develop humility and a more positive outlook in life.
  10. Gratitude enhances vitality. Study shows that high-energy individuals share similar traits with people who exhibit high levels of gratitude, which can only mean that gratitude and vitality are strongly correlated (McCullough et al., 2002).
  11. Gratitude enhances spiritualism. The majority of religions believe that gratitude is one of the most important virtues. This is because Individuals who are more spiritual also have the tendency to exhibit more grateful behavior.

Emotional Benefits

  1. Practicing and showing gratitude improves your mood. Gratitude plays a significant role in enhancing positive emotions. By expressing gratitude on a regular basis, your focus will shift to the positive aspects of your day, which lifts your frame of mind and spirit.
  2. Gratitude helps manage grief. Grieving with gratitude helps us get through times of sorrow. While grieving is a painful process we have to experience over something or someone we have lost, gratitude also helps us appreciate the things left to us or those that we still have.
  3. Gratitude makes us see our memories in a positive light. Unpleasant memories are not easy to look back on and they can haunt us in the present. Gratitude, however, can transform negative memories into positive ones through the power of grateful processing that aims to bring closure to the unpleasant events that fuel these negative recollections (Watkins et al., 2008).
  4. Gratitude contributes to happiness. Several studies have confirmed that exhibiting the attitude of gratitude is associated with happiness triggered by having a stronger sense of appreciation for rewards, kindness received, and other positive aspects of life. By exercising gratitude through journaling, it has been found that long-term happiness can be enhanced by more than 10% (Emmons and McCullough, 2003; Seligman et al., 2005).

Social Benefits

  1. Gratitude helps strengthen romantic relationships. The positive emotions brought by gratitude play a unique role in establishing a high-quality relationship between couples. According to a study, the receiver of gratitude projects “relational growth” with the other person expressing gratitude (Algoe et al., 2013, pp. 605-609). When couples actively participate in expressing and receiving gratitude, the quality of their relationship is likely to improve.
  2. Gratitude helps improve relationships with friends. Similar to how gratitude works in enhancing the quality of romantic relationships, expressing gratitude to friends can work wonders in improving the bond between them and viewing each other in a more positive light. Showing your appreciation to your friends reinforces clearer and more comfortable communication which play significant roles in resolving possible issues and misunderstanding (Lambert & Fincham, 2011, pp. 50-60).
  3. Gratitude strengthens family support. A family that practices gratitude religiously is more likely to have improved well-being. According to a study that focuses on teenagers and young adults with ill parents, those who belong to families that actively practice gratitude feel more protected against the mental and emotional stress brought by the difficulties associated with having ill parents (Stoeckel et al., 2014, pp. 1501-1509).
  4. Gratitude fosters a healthy social circle. People who practice gratitude and express it on a regular basis are more likely to attract people with the same mindset. (Wood et al., 2010).

Professional Skills/Workplace Benefits

  1. Gratitude improves retention. A study conducted by the Glassdoor team shows that 53% of employees claim that they are willing to stay longer in a company if their boss appreciates them more (Glassdoor Team, 2019). Meanwhile, another research states that 66% of employees are willing to quit their jobs if they feel like they are not appreciated (Lipman, 2017).
  2. Gratitude enhances productivity. According to Glassdoor’s survey, 81% or four in every five employees feel more motivated to work harder when they feel that their work is appreciated by their boss and/or employers. Meanwhile, less than 40% of employees feel that they need to work harder due to their bosses’ demands or fear of losing their jobs (Glassdoor, 2019).
  3. Gratitude helps build better relationships among work colleagues. Good camaraderie between work colleagues not only builds better work relationships but also creates a healthy and more positive work environment.
  4. Gratitude enhances management capabilities. Practicing gratitude in the workplace can help shape you to become a more efficient manager or leader. This is particularly helpful in expanding your network and fostering employees’ trust and client loyalty (Emmons and Crumpler, 2000).
  5. Gratitude improves decision-making skills. Making important life decisions, such as choosing a degree and choosing from options that affect your career, requires time and patience. According to a study from Northeastern University, practicing gratitude is an effective way to increase one’s patience, which then helps in making logical and better choices in the different aspects of life. Adding little by little gratitude may help reduce stress in college.
  6. Gratitude cultivates a sense of fulfillment. The practice of gratitude in the workplace helps employees find meaning and purpose as a result of the genuine appreciation they receive from the work they do (Dik et al., 2015).
  7. Gratitude helps improve the working environment. Cultivating gratitude in the workplace plays an important role in establishing a healthy environment where employees feel happy, valued, and cared for.

Source: Glassdoor

Grateful Living in the Time of Pandemic

Cultivating gratitude can be challenging, especially during this time when coronavirus continues to proliferate and fear grips the lives of many. In the midst of these difficult times, it is crucial to pay attention to nurturing not just your physical health but also your mental well-being. While boosting the immune system with proper nutrition, supplements, and vaccines is definitely a necessary step to protect yourself, practicing gratitude is just as important, especially for your mental state.

More than ever, adopting the attitude of gratitude today is even more important in order to reinforce positivity in your and your loved ones’ lives. This can happen if you start focusing on being grateful for the valuable things you have and engaging yourself in gratitude exercises, some of which were included in the previous sections, such as keeping a journal, writing gratitude letters, and more.



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