The Science-Backed Benefits of Practicing Gratitude

Learn about the growing body of research backing up the mental health benefits of practicing gratitude.

Artwork by Joanna Ławniczak

You already know that practicing gratitude is one of the fundamental methods for increasing positivity and leading a happier life, (Check out our article all about what gratitude can do for your mental health and well-being HERE) but did you know that there is a growing body of research backing up those mental health benefits as facts? The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA has suggested that gratitude does in fact change the neural structures within the brain, allowing us to feel both happier and more content. But that’s not all! Read on for all the evidence-backed details.

The Benefits of Gratitude Backed by Research

When we focus on the things we’re grateful for as well as appreciating the gratitude given to us by others, we redirect our brains to acknowledge all of the wonderful things we have, allowing us to live in the present moment and soak up all the positivity that lives there. The thing is, there’s a lot more going on than just feelings of positivity, as changes are happening at the neurochemical level that allow feelings of gratitude to literally jumpstart the neurotransmitters in our brain that are responsible for our regulating emotions, activating reward centers, managing feelings of anxiety and even handling responses to stress.

Gratitude and Managing Stress

Various studies performed over the years have shown that cortisol, the hormone most closely related to stressful responses, is markedly reduced in study participants who practice gratitude. Participants showed more resilience in the face of negative situations and experiences and were better equipped to handle emotional and or physical setbacks. Simply by focusing on the good things in life allows us to physically reduce our hormonal response to stress and anxiety. (Emmons et al., 2000)

Artwork by Oksana Lehaieva

Gratitude and Relationships

Certain studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships as well. One particular study of couples found that partners who took the time to acknowledge and express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive feelings toward the other person but felt also more comfortable when it came to expressing anxiety or unease about their relationship. (Visserman et al., 2018). Demonstrating gratitude in this way can also strengthen other social relationships as well.

Gratitude and Pain Relief

Another study with a research emphasis on the scientific effects of gratitude revealed a correlation between gratefulness and reduced feelings of physical pain. The study showed that practicing gratitude had an effect on dopamine levels in the brain which reduced participants' subjective feelings of pain.

Gratitude and Sleep Quality

Other studies still, have demonstrated a link between the habitual practice of gratitude and a person’s overall sleep quality - meaning both duration as well as deepness of sleep. Not only does a gratitude practice help to clear your mind before bed, but the act of practicing gratitude was actually shown to activate the hypothalamus, the region in the brain that regulates and controls sleep patterns. This activation helped participants in the study reach deeper and healthier sleep cycles. Better sleep has a slew of health benefits all on its own from increased energy to better memory and more.

Artwork by Kendrick Kidd

Gratitude and Our View of the World

Finally, research has also revealed that gratitude is much more than an attitude or an appreciation for the things around us. In fact, gratitude can be viewed more as a lens through which we are able to see the world. This worldview allows those who practice it a better ability to notice and appreciate all of the wonderous things around them each day. Feelings of gratitude trigger all of those “good feeling” hormones to be released in the brain like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These hormones regulate the way we see and feel about ourselves, others and even our natural world around us.

Research is finally starting to reveal what many of us have known for a long time: that the benefits of gratefulness are many and varied. Getting started with a gratitude practice today is one of the best ways to reap the benefits of a more positive mindset and a better overall outlook on life.

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