Give Thanks: 5 Mental Health Benefits of Gratitude

Tis the season! With the holidays approaching, we all face society’s expectation to be happy, thankful, and “in the holiday spirit.” First Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s… it’s time to be jolly! In reality, though, we all know the holiday season is not an easy time for everyone. For some, it may be a very lonely time; for others, family challenges and drama come to the forefront. Many people may have suffered a loss or have dark memories and depressive thoughts associated with this time of year. Then there are those that just wish the sun wouldn’t go down so ridiculously early! 

However you personally feel about the holiday season, one good thing about this time of year is the emphasis on gratitude. Whether or not you feel super grateful amidst all the pumpkins, leaves, and twinkling lights, research shows that intentionally practicing gratitude has great benefits for your mental, physical, and emotional health. Let’s learn together why gratitude makes our lives better and some simple ways to put it into practice.

Why Be Grateful?

First of all, how are we defining gratitude? Well, according to Google, gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Notice, it’s not defined as a feeling; it’s defined as a quality. That’s good news for those of us who don’t feel grateful super easily! It means we can cultivate gratitude as a practice. It’s a skill set we can work on, improving our ability to demonstrate thankfulness to those around us.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, gratitude can be a mental health game changer. Ashley J. Smith, PhD, writes that gratitude trains your brain to “notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously.” This can lead to an increase in your overall happiness and health while decreasing things like anxiety, anger, and depression. So how does this work? 

Well, even though anxious and depressive tendencies don’t look exactly the same for everyone, they all share the common element of negative thought patterns. According to Smith, anxious and depressive thought patterns emphasize the negative and discount the positive, as well as hyper-focus on past and/or future rather than remaining in the present. The practice of gratitude can combat both of these destructive patterns. Smith identifies gratitude as a form of Habit Reversal Training, which is the practice of using a competing response incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. If your thought patterns are naturally worrisome and anxious, or negative and pessimistic, you can use gratitude as a competing response. 

It makes sense, right? Imagine you say to yourself, “I spend WAY too much time binge-watching Netflix shows. I want to do something better with my time. From now on, I’m not going to watch Netflix anymore.” But then, all you’ve got going on in your studio apartment is a couch and a TV. How long do you think that new habit will last? The TV is right there! However, if you put the TV in storage and then buy puzzles, games, watercolor paints, a gym membership, or whatever else you can spend time on, it will probably be a lot easier not to watch your shows. When we have a bad habit we want to change, the best way to break it is to replace it with a new habit. 

As we use gratitude to combat anxious and depressive thoughts, other benefits come along with it.

Some Benefits of Practicing Gratitude

According to Mental Health First Aid, research shows that a single act of intentional gratitude produces an immediate increase in happiness and reduction in depressive symptoms. The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum also describes the protective benefits of thankfulness–gratitude actually decreases the chances of a person being adversely affected by their circumstances.

So often, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we will be happy once everything works out for us. But guess what? There is always something in life, big or small, that is not quite how we want it. We can choose to focus on that thing, or we can choose to find what is good and focus on that. It’s not about the actual circumstances, it’s about what we choose to place our focus on. 

A study on gratitude from the University of Miami compared 3 groups for 10 weeks. The first group wrote about things they were grateful for during each week. The second group wrote about things that irritated and displeased them. The third group wrote about events that had affected them, with no emphasis on positive or negative. The results showed that those who had focused on gratitude were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and had fewer doctor visits over the 10 weeks. 

Expressing gratitude also has benefits in relationships, whether those be romantic, familial, professional, or friendships! Although this research may not definitively prove that gratitude makes you happy, it does show that there is a positive association between happiness and gratitude. In other words, gratitude is beneficial, in varying ways and degrees.

Gratitude Practices (Some Ideas for You)

There are so many ways to practice gratitude. Everyone is different, and that’s half the fun! Be creative in how you choose to express gratitude. Here are some helpful ideas to get you started on your gratitude journey.  

  • Start a gratitude journal. Whether you buy a cute little notebook or use the Notes app on your phone, record a few moments of thanksgiving from each day before you go to bed. This helps you build the habit of daily gratitude, and it also provides you with positive content to look back on when you’re feeling down. 
  • Write “thank you” cards. Gratitude isn’t something to keep to yourself. Spread the love! At least once a week, think of someone in your life who you are grateful for. Write them a card, give them a call, or send a quick text. Whatever gratitude you feel inside, let it out! It will bless others to hear how their life has touched yours. 
  • Celebrate small victories. Sometimes, we are so focused on big goals that we miss the little wins along the way. An article from Harvard Business Review described how rejoicing in our small personal victories keeps us feeling good and helps us press on towards our larger goals. Take time throughout your day to celebrate your little wins–whether that’s positive feedback from a task at work, a good grade on a school project, a moment of overcoming social anxiety, or just getting out of bed in the morning. 
  • Create visual reminders of gratitude. We can all use a little reminder here and there to keep our momentum going. Sometimes, the best way to keep yourself accountable to have a grateful heart is to put up reminders in your physical space! These can be sticky notes with quotes on them, having a gratitude wall in your room, or art pieces that remind you to be thankful. Write on the top of your mirror, “Today I am grateful for…” Each day as you get ready, meditate on some things you are grateful for in that moment. 

Gratitude Doesn’t Dismiss Your Pain

It’s important to practice gratitude in a way that is sincere, not guilt-inducing. Often, we convince ourselves that we don’t deserve to be sad, because we have this or that. People in our lives often find their own ways to give us this same message. “I would do anything to be in your position. Why aren’t you happy there?” “You have a great husband and a beautiful new baby. What do you mean you’re depressed?” “At least you have a family to complain about. Some people don’t even have that.” This type of messaging can lead us to suppress our emotions, which doesn’t do any good long-term. 

Gratitude should not be used as a means to dismiss and delegitimize our problems. Problems are real; pain is real. You should never deny the hard things in your life. Gratitude is meant to exist alongside messy circumstances, helping us shift our perspective without denying reality. School is overwhelming and exhausting, AND I’m blessed to have access to education. I am grateful for my job, AND some days I don’t want to show up. The pandemic was scary and heartbreaking, AND it offered many people a precious chance to slow down. 

We live in constant tension between the good and the bad. We can hold pain in one hand and gratitude in the other. Gratitude serves to help us experience joy even in hard seasons. This holiday season, practice gratitude to keep your heart cheerful and your spirits bright.

Gratitude & Unplanned Pregnancy

An unplanned pregnancy can significantly disrupt your life, but it doesn’t have to send you into a negative thought spiral. Gratitude practices can help you work through challenging moments, even an unexpected pregnancy, with perspective and positivity. Your pregnancy decision is yours to make, and a grateful attitude can help you work through your circumstances in a positive way. 

At Clearway, if you find yourself facing an unplanned pregnancy, we are here to support you as you walk through a pregnancy decision. Schedule an appointment today to confirm your pregnancy, get connected to resources, and learn more about your pregnancy options.

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