When you think of gratitude, what comes to mind? For many of us, it’s likely a single day, Thanksgiving—especially since that’s recently been on our radar. We often envision sitting around tables, sharing what and who we’re thankful for. While that is a wonderful example, the truth is that gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving. It’s a practice we can incorporate into our daily lives.
Practicing gratitude has multiple benefits, especially when it comes to our mental well-being. (Though we are not saying it is a cure for mental health issues as these are still very real problems with or without gratitude.) Regardless of how much you know about gratitude, how often you practice it, or how you practice it, being thankful can have a powerful, positive impact on your life.
In this article, we’ll address what gratitude is and isn’t, the science behind gratitude including how and why it works, the benefits of being thankful, and lastly, practical tips to apply to your life.
What Gratitude Is NOT
Understanding what gratitude is not is just as important as knowing what it is. Unfortunately, the concept of gratitude and being grateful has been misused and abused to create things like toxic positivity, shame, and the neglect of valid emotions. Here are a few things that gratitude is not.
Gratitude is not ignoring the hard, negative, or painful circumstances or feelings in your life.
Gratitude is supposed to be helpful to your mental health, but using it to ignore or skip over painful feelings and situations actually has the opposite effect. Accepting difficulties, struggles, and big emotions is vital to your mental wellbeing. The truth is, hard things in life can coexist with gratitude. They’re not mutually exclusive, and the presence of one does not indicate the absence of the other.
Gratitude is not pushing down the hard things and covering them with forced happiness.
Even if we don’t ignore our feelings or difficulties, the practice of gratitude can sometimes seem like it’s forcing us to push these hard things down and “just be happy”. That is not gratitude; that’s called toxic positivity, and it can be incredibly damaging. Toxic gratitude forces people to overlook their pain in search of a silver lining, whether or not one exists. Even if it’s well-meaning, toxic positivity implies what you’re feeling isn’t valid and instead, being happy and thankful should be your constant state.1 Examples of this include phrases such as “Just be grateful”, “someone else has it worse than you”, “you have more to be grateful for than to cry about”, “think of all the good you still have”, “well at least you…”, etc. As we mentioned above, both painful events/feelings and gratitude can exist in your life.
Gratitude is not avoiding serious problems.
Sometimes giving thanks can backfire on us. While gratitude is beneficial and intended to assist us in overcoming and navigating annoyances in our lives, there are instances where those problems are bigger and require much more attention. In these situations, simply reminding yourself what you’re appreciative of may offer short-term relief, but not provide long-term solutions that feeling and working through your bigger emotions may offer.2 This is also the case if giving thanks is causing you to overlook a toxic situation, broken boundaries, or an abusive person.
Gratitude is not a mental health cure.
While practicing gratitude can have a wonderful, positive impact on mental health, it’s not in any way, shape, or form, a cure. Making a gratitude list or reminding yourself of what you’re thankful for isn’t going to make depression, loss, OCD, anxiety, PTSD, etc. disappear. It’s simply a tool that can help you stay afloat amidst the hard times. It’s also not a substitute for therapy and/or medication.
What Gratitude Is
Now that we’ve gone through what gratitude is not, let’s dive into what it actually is. The American Psychological Association defines this phenomenon as “a sense of happiness and thankfulness in response to a fortunate happenstance or tangible gift.” As mentioned above, this sense of thankfulness does not dismiss or diminish the difficult things we are feeling or experiencing. Rather, it helps us acknowledge that even amidst the pain, there is good to be found. Being grateful can also provide us an additional perspective of how we see our world.
Robert Emmons, an American psychologist and professor, parses gratitude out into two parts: affirmation and recognition. First, there is an affirmation of goodness—the fact that there are good things in the world, benefits had, gifts received, etc. Simply put, this step is recognizing the things in our life that cause us to feel grateful in the first place. Second, in practicing gratitude, we recognize that sources of this goodness are often outside ourselves—friends, family members, neighbors, strangers that buy our coffee, God, etc.
Last, but not least, it’s important to keep in mind that gratitude is a practice. It’s something you have to work on and do over and over in order for it to become part of your life—which often takes time. Think of it like a muscle you have to train and build up. Gratitude is a practice that requires us to continually acknowledge other people's gestures towards us and the things that are going well in our lives.3
The Science Behind Gratitude
We’re not scientists (obviously), but we think it’s important for us to all understand how and why gratitude works. So, below, we’ve compiled summaries of the process involved in practicing gratitude.
Expressing and receiving gratitude causes our brain to release dopamine and serotonin—two neurotransmitters that are responsible for us feeling good and boosting happiness. Our brains are incredibly smart and adaptable, and just like with other habits, doing something over and over again helps create more permanent change in our lives. Therefore, by being aware of and practicing gratitude, we can help the neural pathways in our brain strengthen and ultimately create a permanent grateful nature within ourselves.4
Gratitude helps us release toxic emotions. When we are thankful, the areas of our brain that help us regulate things like our emotions and memory are activated, assisting our mind in releasing negative emotions that don’t provide any benefit. Gratitude also aids in stress reduction by soothing our nervous system and creating an environment of calm and rest.5
The Benefits of Gratitude
Below, we’ve listed 8 benefits behind practicing appreciation. While this is not an exhaustive list, it gives great insight into why gratitude is important.
Can increase happiness levels, which helps fight things like depression and anxiety
Improves physical health6
Stronger immune systems
Lower blood pressure
Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
Improves social health6
More helpful, generous, and compassionate
Feel less lonely and isolated
Improves psychological health6
Higher levels of positive emotions
More alert, alive, and awake
More joy and pleasure
Builds stronger relationships and communication skills
Motivates us to engage in other positive behaviors which leads to self-improvement7
Builds over time to have long-last effects, not just immediate ones
Helps us challenge fear, anxiety, what-ifs, etc. by reminding us of what is good in life even when there is also pain
Gratitude Practice Ideas
Maybe you were a fan of gratitude before this, or maybe we’ve convinced you of its importance. But the question is, how do you start? What do you do? While everyone is different, and you have to ultimately find what works for you, we’ve given you a few ideas and tips for the road.
Starting off too ambitious or with unrealistic expectations can actually deter you from trying in the first place. You don’t need to write a mile-long list of what you’re grateful for; instead, start with 1-3 items. Of course, you can always add more if you feel like it, but don’t pressure yourself to come up with a long list or name every single little thing you’re thankful for. Likewise, you don’t have to put this into practice every day, you can start practicing gratitude 1x a week and increase from there.
Don’t Second Guess Yourself
Sometimes it can be easy to contemplate or write down something we’re grateful for and then think that it’s too small, too mundane, or the same thing we’ve put for the last 3 weeks. This can cause us to second guess ourselves, our gratitude practice, and our ability to be thankful. The truth is, our brain favors patterns and expressing gratitude repeatedly for the same thing is totally normal and acceptable. Nothing is too small to be grateful for. Whatever comes to mind is valid because it’s all about building up the habit and reaping the benefits in your life.
Challenge Yourself For 3 Weeks
You’ve probably heard the saying that it takes 21 days to make something a habit. That same exact principle can be applied to practicing gratitude. If you feel up for it, try challenging yourself to stick with a gratitude practice for at least 3 weeks. Doing so will help you build it into your daily life. But of course, if you miss a day or can’t bring yourself to continue right now, that’s okay too. Don’t beat yourself up about it (which sort of defeats the mental health benefits of the practice); you can always start up again when you’re able.
Keep a Journal
While being grateful can happen just in your thoughts, oftentimes writing things down helps ideas get stamped into your mind even more. One great way to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Whether you write in it every morning, every evening, on your lunch break, or just whenever you feel like it, it’s a powerful tool to help you remember and actively practice appreciating good things in your life. It’s also a cool way to reflect on your week, month, year, etc. and see all that you’ve found to be grateful for and the things you appreciate in your life.
Another method of writing your thankfulness down is to create and use a gratitude jar. All you need is paper, something to write with, and an empty jar, bowl, dish, box, etc. This practice involves writing down what you’re grateful for on slips of paper and putting them in the jar or container. Then, you’re able to pull one out when you need a mood boost, are feeling down, or need help reminding yourself of the good in your life amidst the pain. It can be a powerful tool.
Practice ‘Active Noticing’
Coined by Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, ‘active noticing’ is being aware of the little things in your everyday life. Another term for this is often mindfulness. For example, you could go outside and look for three things that make you smile. Or, next time you’re with your partner or friend, find something new about them or name two things you love about them. Doing this keeps our mind off of autopilot and allows us to be truly present to experience our lives—yes, the good and the bad. As you become accustomed to observing these small details, it becomes easier to express gratitude for them and for life in general. Plus, this practice of active noticing is one you can do on the go, any time, anywhere.