The more I witness the subtle and profound shifts in clients after a gratitude practice, the more curious I am about what “the experts” know regarding gratitude’s effect on our overall mental, emotional, physical health. There’s some exciting notions creeping into the scientific community regarding this topic!
1. PTSD & Post-Traumatic Growth: In a study conducted in 2006, researchers found that Viet Nam veterans suffering from PTSD had significantly less gratitude in their perspectives on life than veterans in a control group. That said, when asked to participate in daily journaling exercises eliciting gratitude, those with PTSD has a significant improvement in their daily outlook! (Kashdan, Uswatte, and Julian (2006)). A study measuring VIA traits (Values In Action) of people before and after the 9-11 attacks showed that gratitude was one characteristic that increased during this time period aiding in higher daily functioning (Peterson & Seligman, 2003).
2. Healing from Mental and Physical Ailments: A large study (2087 =n) in 2002-2003 showed that those who recovered from psychological or physical ailments had higher levels of gratitude (esp. appreciation of beauty, creativity, gratitude, bravery, spirituality, and love of learning) than those who had not (Peterson & Seligman, 203).
3. Better Sleep: A study comparing those with insomnia to those with regular sleep behavior, showed that higher gratitude correlated with better sleep quality and quantity (Nelson & Harvey, 2003).
4. Improved Body Image: In 2010, Geraghty et al. found that those participating in gratitude lists significantly decreased their body image dissatisfaction as compared to the control group (.71 standard deviations (or 76% of gratitude group improved)). Not only was this as effective as another clinical tool called ATR (Automatic Thought Record) where patients record their negative or impulsive thoughts to see them in a more balanced or objective way but those who participated in gratitude lists were much more likely to finish the experiment compared to those using ATR (Geraghty et al., 2010).
5. Decreases Symptoms of Depression: A meta-analysis (n=2,973) conducted in 2011, (Lambert, Fincham, and Stillman) concluded that within the eight studies they analyzed, gratitude is related to fewer depressive symptoms in those suffering from the affliction. Positive reframing and cultivating positive emotions serve as the tools by which this relationship is established.
6. Builds Better Social Support and Mitigates Stress in Challenging Life Situations: Published in 2008, Wood et al. analyzed two longitudinal studies that showed a correlation between gratitude and stress in college students. Those subjects with greater sense of gratitude also had higher perceived social support and less stress during a semester in undergraduate studies.
7. Makes us Happier: In three studies, participants were asked to keep a journal of daily blessings, or (control groups) daily comparison to others, or lists of hassles. As expected, those who participated in the gratitude journal part of the study reported greater well-being in several areas including sleep quality, prosocial behavior (helping others in need), and more time spent exercising (Emmons and McCullough, 2003).
8. Can Help Retell Our Story: As someone who went through depression in her adolescence, this concept is a personal favorite. Some of my depression centered on this “broken record” experience I was having – constantly re-playing all the crappy events that had taken place in my past. Well, Watkins, Grimm, and Kolts (2004) conducted two studies that both showed a positive relationship between gratitude and a positive memory basis. Furthermore, Watkins argues in a 2008 article (later a book: Gratitude and the Good Life) that such reframing can lead to an upward spiral of positive emotions. If we can reframe our past, we can reclaim our present and future!
9. Helps Us Keep Our Batteries Charged: In four studies (n=1622) McCullough, et al. found that there was a positive correlation between vitality and gratitude. This correlation was found even after controlling for personality traits like extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and perceived social desirability. So even those who are not inherently boisterous and socially adept (personalities naturally associated with trait gratitude and high energy) will have higher energy levels based on higher levels of gratitude!
10. Better Relationships: In the book, Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra summarize an impressive collection of studies asserting that those who possess greater trait gratitude also build social capital well. Those with high levels of gratitude are perceived as better potential romantic partners, friends and better co-workers. Greater gratitude leads to more trust in others and more likelihood of creating new relationships and maintaining established ones.
11. Improves Self-Esteem: So many of kids I use to work with in wilderness therapy and those clients I still support now and again come with a deflated sense of self/self-worth. The downward spiral that can create is insidious and heart-breaking. Good news, however! In a study published in 2008, Froh et al. examined the role of gratitude in shcool-attending adolescence (n=221). The study demonstrated that “counting your blessings” had a strong positive relationship to overall self-satisfaction. Overall self-esteem was higher in those who participated in a daily gratitude exercise as opposed to those in the control group during immediate post-academic test and at a three week follow-up.
12. Enhances Moral and Spiritual Qualities: Nowak and Roch (2007) argued that feelings of gratitude produce “upstream reciprocity.” Meaning, when we are grateful for others or the gifts given to us from others, we are more inclined to pay it forward – engaging in altruistic acts because we are focused on the goodness of people and want to participate. Emmons and Mishra summarize from several studies in the early 2000s that those who are religiously or spiritually inclined also show grater gratitude. While spirituality and many world religions hold gratitude as a desirable and necessary trait, it may be circular relationship – one’s spiritual practices encourage gratitude; gratitude helps foster even more connectedness to one’s sense of spirituality.
The holiday season abounds with invitations of happiness, relaxation, stress, sorrow, struggle, and so much more. Remember that conscious cultivation of gratitude can help support you in a myriad of ways. Look into different practices that will help engender greater experience of gratitude to enhance your well-being as you navigate this season.
I send you and your family my best wishes for health and happiness this holiday season! Brightest blessings!