Comprehensive healthcare has become increasingly important in modern medicine, leading to a growing trend of allowing people to take more active roles in the daily management of their health and wellbeing. Mental health professionals have been attempting to identify low-effort, high-impact strategies that can lead to notable mental health improvements. Among these strategies—including mindfulness and exercise[JG1] routines—the power of gratitude has been widely studied for its positive effects on overall psychological wellbeing as well as mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety.
What is gratitude and why is it so important?
The Harvard Medical School defines gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives.”1
Gratitude is vital for maintaining a positive outlook, addressing stress, and promoting psychological wellbeing. Gratitude practice has many observed physical, cognitive, and emotional effects, but a few are particularly noteworthy:
- It helps us focus on and appreciate the present.
- It can balance out intense negative emotions and thought patterns, such as jealousy or resentment.
- It can boost self-esteem and focus attention on our achievements and positive attributes.
- Sustained practice can lead to improved psychological resilience to stress triggers, trauma, and adversity.
Gratitude’s effects on depression and recovery
For most people, recovering from mental illnesses such as depression is not easy, and many mental health advocates talk about their depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other disorders being with them their entire lives.
Depression is a complex psychological condition characterized by deeply intrusive symptoms such as low moods, apathy, anxiety, and loss of pleasure and interest. While gratitude practice cannot cure chronic depression, it can significantly alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life.2,3
One key issue that characterizes mental health disorders like depression and anxiety is the inability to self-assure alongside the presence of persistent self-criticism and doubt. Researchers have found that gratitude significant lessens the likelihood of depression and anxiety symptoms by promoting self-assurance.4,5 By promoting positive self-evaluation, gratitude can also lessen the impact of chronic depression and suicidal ideation.6
Two notable studies found that gratitude can foster perceived and actual social support and provide protection from stress and depression.7 Researchers have also found that the negative effects of high-stress life conditions, such as a stressful occupation or chronic illness, can be alleviated through gratitude practices.8,9
Gratitude practices can be simple and short, which makes them easy to integrate into daily life. Here are a few ways to begin cultivating gratitude:
Mentally thank someone
Think of this like a mental thank-you note. Take a moment to think about someone who has helped you in some way—it can be something as small as holding the door open for you. Actively thank that person in your mind and experience this moment of gratitude with your full attention.
Reflect on what you are thankful for this week.
Routine reflection can help you achieve the long-term effects of gratitude by giving you a chance to wind down and focus your attention on only positive things. Start with writing just five things that you are grateful for in the moment. Try to be specific and focus on how each event made you feel.
Start by picking one thing that you are grateful for and focusing on it. Repeat one word or phrase (mentally or out loud) to keep your attention on this thought. Pay attention to how it made you feel then and the way actively being thankful makes you feel upon remembering it. [JG2]
Start a gratitude journal.
Each day, write down something that you are thankful for. Many people like to do this when they wake up to help them start their day on a positive note. If things get stressful or your mood begins to dip, glance at that day’s moment of gratitude to help draw attention toward the positive.