Gratitude can have many benefits to your health. It can be done in many ways. There are some pitfalls that can happen with gratitude practices which can change a beneficial experience into a harmful one. Overall, gratitude practices are simple ways to bring some benefit into your life.
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is a positive emotion that involves being thankful and appreciative and is associated with several mental and physical health benefits. It is a recognition of value independent of monetary worth. Spontaneously generated from within, it is an affirmation of goodness and warmth. This social emotion strengthens relationships, and its roots are connected to the survival value of helping others and being helped in return.
According to researchers, “Gratitude stems from the recognition that something good happened to you, accompanied by an appraisal that someone, whether another individual or an impersonal source, such as nature or a divine entity, was responsible for it.”
How is Gratitude Beneficial?
Gratitude practices can cause lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that heighten sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude.
- Better sleep
- Better immunity
- Lower blood pressure
- More likely to engage in other health-promoting behaviours
- Feel less pain
- Higher self-esteem
- Decreased stress
- Less anxiety and depression
- Higher levels of optimism
- Can help build and maintain relationships with others, resulting in hope, life satisfaction, and more proactive behaviours toward others (Passmore & Oades, 2016).
- If a person experiences gratitude, they are more likely to recognize the help and then later reciprocate that help (Wood et al., 2010).
- People who are thanked are more likely to extend help to others in the future.
How Can You Practice Gratitude?
There are many ways of practising gratitude. You can try a few to figure out what feels the best for you.
- Spend a few moments thinking about the things in your life that you are grateful for.
- Reframe experiences: Compare current situations to negative experiences in the past. This enables you to notice your strengths and self-growth, as well as appreciate things in the here and now.
- Think about people who have inspired you and what about them was most significant.
- Engage in “mental subtraction.” Imagine what your life would be like if some positive event had not occurred.
- Meditation and focusing attention on people or things you are grateful for indicates appreciation for yourself, which could help to foster even more gratitude.
- Stopping to observe and acknowledge the beauty of wonder of something you encounter in your daily life.
- Paying attention to the small things in your life that bring you joy and peace.
- Meditation or prayer focused on giving thanks.
- Observe the moment: Take a second to focus on your experience and how you are feeling. Focus on what is coming through your senses in that present moment. What are you grateful for in the present moment?
- Savor the moment: Give yourself time to really enjoy the moment. Focus on the experience and allow yourself to absorb those good feelings.
A gratitude journal involves jotting down a few things that you are thankful for and can be done daily, weekly or any interval that works for you. Keeping a gratitude journal is a good first step toward establishing gratitude, and it will help you identify and reflect on people, things, or events for which you are thankful. It is also something that you can look back and read when you are feeling down to improve your mood.
Writing a gratitude letter is a form of written communication that conveys an appreciation for someone in your life. These effectively communicate the impact someone has had on our lives. Although it is nice to send it to someone, you can write a gratitude letter with no intention to send it.
Write down “three good things”—identify three things that have gone well for you and identify the cause.
Write thank-you notes to others.
- The gratitude visit: Take the gratitude letter a step further by visiting the person to whom you are giving the gratitude letter and reading it aloud to him or her.
- Thanking someone for the positive influence they have in your life.
- Doing something kind for another person to show that you are grateful.
- Give thanks: You might thank a person to show you are thankful for them, or you might spend a moment simply mentally appreciating what you have.
- Create gratitude rituals: Pausing for a moment to appreciate something and giving thanks for it can help you feel a greater sense of gratitude. A meditation, prayer, or mantra are examples of rituals that can inspire a greater sense of gratitude.
Developing a sense of gratitude doesn’t have to be complex or challenging. The more you practice it, the better you will become and put yourself into a grateful state of mind that can benefit you.
Pitfalls of Gratitude
While gratitude is generally viewed as a beneficial activity, there are situations where it may have some downsides. For example, if you view it as a situation that creates a debt, it may make you feel a sense of obligation that could potentially contribute to feelings of stress.
The pressure to feel grateful, particularly around certain times of the year such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, can also contribute to feelings of stress.
Invalidating Your Emotional Experiences
Gratitude that’s done in a way that is invalidating is not good. It should not be about comparisons to others, it’s about what you appreciate in this moment. What you appreciate in the here and now. You can have things you appreciate and negative experiences. It becomes unhealthy when it is used to diminish or dismiss your own lived experiences of various stressors and harms. Gratitude can be used to gaslight you about the very reality of such stressors and harms.
Hindering Your Emotional Processing
It is important that you don’t use gratitude to avoid certain emotions or hinder your emotional processing. If you are upset, it is important to let your emotions change and run their course. If they don’t seem to be calming down, use emotion regulation skills.
Do not force gratitude when you’re feeling upset as a way to manage your emotions. Instead, allow yourself to experience your emotions while acknowledging that gratitude won’t stop or fix them.
Maintaining Harmful Systemic Issues
Avoid gratitude for things that maintain structures that need to change. Gratitude can become similar to “toxic positivity” in that it serves to sustain and reinforce injustice, exploitation, and the kinds of oppressive power relations that are at the basis of so many mental health problems.
Acknowledge the systemic issues that negatively impact you and how these issues co-exist with your feelings of gratitude.
Overdosing on Gratitude
More isn’t always better when it comes to gratitude practices. If you aim too high, your gratitude practice may become a chore and the benefits decrease. If that is happening for you, take a step back and focus on quality over quantity.
Focusing on Feeling Grateful for Someone or Something Who isn’t Worthy
Focusing on feeling grateful in an unhealthy relationship that involves physical or emotional abuse can be harmful. You may end up gaslighting yourself or convincing yourself to stay in a bad situation. If you are in a situation like that, focus on gratitude for yourself or the world outside that specific situation.
Using Gratitude to Avoid a Serious Problem
Gratitude helps you focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in the little annoyances of everyday life. However, not all problems are little annoyances, and focusing your attention on things you appreciate may provide only temporary relief from serious problems. In cases like these, a negative emotion like anger may actually be more constructive.
Downplaying Your Own Successes Through Excessive Gratitude
It’s important to recognize your role in positive things that have happened to you. Don’t let gratitude get in the way of appropriately taking credit for your part in your success.
Mistaking Gratitude for Indebtedness
Gratitude is the positive emotion you feel when someone else helps you out. Indebtedness is when someone helped you and now you feel you owe them. If you mistake feelings of gratitude for indebtedness, you may find yourself working hard to repay a favour not to express your appreciation but to take the weight of a debt off your shoulders. This can harm the closeness of the relationship.
Establishing a gratitude practice can bring you a lot of benefits. It is not a complex or challenging thing to do. It is within your control. If you avoid the pitfalls, it can bring great benefit to your life.