Over the last decade or so, social science researchers have been exploring how gratitude impacts mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Gratitude can be defined as showing appreciation, acknowledging one’s blessings, and returning kindnesses to others out of a sense of feeling grateful.
An article by Joshua Brown and Joel Wong explores how gratitude impacts mental health and the brain. These researchers found that practicing gratitude has long lasting benefits on one’s mental health. Their results echo earlier findings that support how the practice of gratitude can decrease feelings of depression in several different populations (e.g. college students, elderly, mentally ill, etc.). For the purposes of this blog, I am going to use the term “gratitude effect” when I refer to the impact gratitude has on mental health and the brain.
Previous research also explored whether the gratitude effect impacted those struggling socio-economically versus those who were not, in similar ways and found that those with significant financial struggles also experienced a boost in mood when they practiced gratitude.
In 2017 Brown and Wong studied the impact of gratitude on mental health by randomly dividing 300 adults (mostly college students) seeking mental health services into 3 groups. One group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person for3 weeks, the second group wrote a letter about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences, and the third group did not engage in any writing activity.
Although all received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health at weeks 4 and 12 in the study than those who did not.
How Does Practicing Gratitude Work?
Brown and Wong (2017) suggest that practicing gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions which clearly has significant psychological benefits. They did a deeper dive into the content of the letters written by participants in both groups and compared the percentage of positive emotion words, negative emotion words, and the use of “we” participants used in their writing. They found that the gratitude effect was present for those who used “we” (instead of “I”). These researchers highlight that the absence of negative emotions in participants’ writings was indicative of having a more positive mood over time. Thus, practicing gratitude and decreasing negative emotions in one’s writing was the most beneficial in decreasing feelings of depression over time.
This study also found that the gratitude effect can increase over time if participants actively practiced gratitude but that it also took time. The maximum benefit occurred at 12 weeks versus earlier in the study.
How Does Practicing Gratitude Impact the Brain?
To study gratitude’s impact on the brain, Brown and Wong used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity while participants were asked to engage in a “pay it forward” task. The researchers created a scenario where participants were consistently given small amounts of money by a nice person called the “benefactor” who asked them to pass the money onto someone if they felt grateful. Participants decided who to pass money onto and how much to give others or a worthy cause. Study participants were also asked to rate how grateful they felt toward the benefactor, how much they wanted to help each charitable cause and how guilty they might feel if they did not help. They also answered questions about how grateful they felt in their lives overall.
Brown and Wong found that when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was quite different from brain activity related to guilt or the desire to help a cause. When people felt more grateful overall, they gave more money to a cause, showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex (a brain area associated with learning and decision making), and felt better in general. The gratitude letter writers versus the negative experience letter writers, showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This effect was found 3 months after letter writing began.
This powerful finding suggests that simply expressing gratitude can have lasting effects on the brain. This finding could indicate that practicing gratitude over time would train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line and contribute to improved mental health over time.
What Does this Mean in the Real World?
This is but one of many studies demonstrating that those who actively practice gratitude tend to have a more positive mood, an improved outlook on life, and are more giving than those who do not actively practice gratitude. Although as a psychologist, I do think that it is important to acknowledge all of our emotional experiences lest we risk invalidating how we feel about issues in which we might be struggling, adding a component of gratitude has clear mental health benefits in helping us appreciate others in our lives and acknowledging areas in which we are grateful for what we have. I would imagine that the gratitude effect has strong spiritual benefits and I would also hypothesize that practicing gratitude helps us feel connected to others, increases our feelings of compassion and kindness, and contributes to our feeling emotionally connected with those around us. All of these things have significant positive benefits for our mental health.