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Is Gratitude the Secret to Positive Mental Health?

You may have heard people "counting their blessings" or practicing gratitude in order to sustain a healthy and positive approach to their life. Indeed, listing all the things that we are grateful for, does mean we are acknowledging that there is good in the world amid the struggles. However, when we are feeling low, it can be difficult to look for the good stuff in our lives - we may just not be able to see it, so practicing gratitude is something that is said to help with this. But does it really make a difference? Take a look at some of the studies on gratitude and what they found:

  • A study by Glassdoor found that 80% of employees would be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said they’d feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly.(source)

  • One study from Bina Nusantara University in Indonesia found that the more grateful a person is, the less they compare themselves to others and the more satisfied with their own lives they are.(source)

  • Practicing gratitude has a ripple effect and impacts those around us. A 2013 study by Algoe, Fredrickson and Gable found that by expressing gratitude to our partners, we improve the quality of our relationship. (source)

  •  In one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress toward them. This might be because gratitude makes us more energetic.(source)

Pretty compelling evidence so far: we work harder, it's good for our self esteem and confidence, and it makes us feel more energetic. We can practice gratitude in many ways including journalling (more on that later on in the newsletter), writing a letter to those we are grateful for, or acknowledging out loud the glimmers we experience everyday.

A "glimmer" is a psychological term because it is the opposite of a trigger. Triggers often spark negative thoughts, memories based on previous traumatic or distressing experiences. Glimmers are instances that elevate your mood, provide sudden happiness, joy, contentment, peace, and provide you with a sense of calmness. Glimmers in everyday life are small and spontaneous moments but how they look or present themselves can vary from person to person.

For some people, it can be watching the sunset or sunrise, thinking of their pet, seeing a photo of a safe and important person in their life, a smell that takes you back to a happy memory, seeing the leaves of the trees change during the seasons etc. Who we are, our life experiences, and how we are feeling, will all provide a personal perspective of what a glimmer is and how it feels.

So we know journalling and recognising glimmers can make us feel better, but what does it actually do to our brains and does it really improve mental health? When we experience gratitude or a glimmer, our brain activates the chemicals that boosts our happiness and well being (serotonin and dopamine). This release can also help with our sleep and memory. Our stress hormone (cortisol) decreases when we exhibit or experience gratitude. It makes us feel safe as we are thankful and experiencing joy and contentment, thus lowering anxiety levels and the feeling of fear. The practice of gratitude can actually change the way our brains work. By doing it regularly, you are restructuring your paradigm (how you see the world and how you react to it) and in doing so, you will begin to feel differently towards things that may have previously frustrated, angered, or upset you. This positive thinking enables new neural connections to be made in your brain, so your automatic thoughts and reactions will not be negative, instead it will have conditioned itself to become more measured and look for positives.

This sounds incredible doesn't it? And a really powerful approach for mental health issues, which is backed up by the following:

  • Journaling in a gratitude diary has shown to reduce depression and anxiety, while increasing optimism among suicidal inpatients. Some researchers argue that gratitude is a low-cost, high-impact mental health tool with protective benefits against suicide.(source)

  • Scientists studying positive psychology found that a one-time act of thoughtful gratitude produced an immediate 10% increase in happiness and 35% reduction in depressive symptoms. The happy effects disappeared within three to six months which shows that gratitude is an act to be repeated again and again.(source)

  •  As well as reducing stress, gratitude may help us overcome trauma. A 2006 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that war veterans who felt higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. (source)

So finding glimmers and practicing gratitude really can make a difference for us, both mentally and physically. Although not necessarily a secret, gratitude can feel like the last thing we need or should do when we are feeling low, anxious, or emotional. However, if we start now, then it can only make our coping strategies and mental health toolbox even stronger. If this has made you curious, try it right now...

  1. Write 3 things you are grateful for today (remember they don't need to be big, it can be that the sun shone through the winter clouds, or that your cup or tea was particularly tasty this morning).

  2. Think of one person in your life and write 3 things you are grateful to them for (if you are wanting to really ride the gratitude wave, send it to them or tell them in person!)

  3. Identify 3 glimmers today and make a point of stopping or thinking about each glimmer for at least a few minutes.

Practicing gratitude may not cure all mental health issues or blow away the blues immediately, but it gives us a strong foundation of how to deal with them and the triggers that may arise. Let me know if you decide to add this practice into your life, and how you find it. You never know, this may be the secret to your longer term positive mental health.

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