A 2003 study compared the well-being of participants who kept a weekly list of things they were grateful for to participants who kept a list of things that irritated them. The researchers showed that the gratitude-focused participants exhibited increased well-being and brain activity conducive to mental health.
The participants didn’t start out any more or less grateful than anyone else, and they didn’t change their lives during the study so that they’d have more to be thankful for. They just turned their outlook to one of gratitude, and were happier for it.
How does gratitude do this? One way is by stimulating two important regions in our brains: the hypothalamus, which regulates stress, and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of joy and pleasure.
Being specific about what you appreciate is one of the most powerful ways to record your gratitude. For example: I am grateful for ______ because _______.
- I am grateful for my legs because they allow me to run and walk which allows me to see beautiful things in the world which make me happy.
- I am grateful for my husband because he supports me, makes me feel safe and loved, and makes me laugh.
- I am grateful for my best friend because she makes me feel special, makes me laugh, lights me up and makes me feel seen and heard when I am down.
- I am grateful for clean drinking water because it enables wellness and vitality.
- I am grateful for my home because it is where I can create, where I can relax, and feel free to be myself.
Five life areas for journaling
Think about your gratitude in five areas of life:
- Livelihood and Lifestyle: Your work, money, travel, possessions, and where you live
- Body and Wellness: Your fitness, food, relaxation, healing, mental health, and sex
- Creativity and learning: Your cultural activities, education, study, interests and hobbies
- Relationships and Society: Your culture, your community, your friends and family
- Essence and spirituality: Your faith, soul, inner life, or devotional practices.
In each life area, what are you thankful for and why?
In essence, we are grateful for things because of how they make us feel. In my examples, I am grateful for the things I listed because they make me feel well, safe, loved, amused or joyful. But also, when we reflect on how things make us feel we will, in turn, feel more grateful for them.
Types of gratitude
Finally, researchers suggest adopting three strategies to harness the positive health effects of gratitude.
- Interior gratitude: Keep a daily or weekly list of the things you are grateful for. For example, I might add to my list above: I am grateful to have a job that I love because through my job I get to help people and feel connected to them.
- Exterior gratitude: Write thank-you notes and put your gratitude to others on paper. For example, you could write a thank-you email to your best friend or parent for supporting you through a difficult time.
- Be grateful for mundane things: In other words, express thanks for the everyday stuff you usually overlook such as fresh fruit, clean air or air-conditioning.
My advice is to try writing down your notes of gratitude in a nice notebook or even on your phone for two weeks every afternoon or evening and see how you feel after that. Let us know in the comments below.
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