“It’s three weeks into the new year and I’m already stressed and frustrated with myself. I want to be healthier this year – but I just can’t seem to get motivated.”

That’s what my friend Jessica said to me this week when we met for tea. Like many, she’d set some intentions for herself as 2024 began, but couldn’t seem to get herself moving towards them. She wanted to exercise, lose a little weight, eat healthier – all great goals. But there was something she hadn’t thought of, something that can actually make those goals easier: gratitude.

When I asked her if she had a specific gratitude practice, she looked at me curiously. “I’m definitely grateful for the things I have,” she said, “but what do you mean by gratitude practice?”

I’m so glad she asked; and our conversation inspired me to write about gratitude here because it’s so important, but often not what comes to mind when setting goals for yourself in the new year.

There’s been quite a bit of research around what gratitude can do to help relieve stress (and therefore boost health) and improve your mood. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence, then I’ll give you three easy ways to begin a practice of gratitude that can help keep you happy and healthy all year long!

Gratitude and stress relief

Stress is constant, and since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, that’s been even more true. The pandemic really pushed a lot of people to the brink – and we haven’t recovered yet! Chronic stress takes such a toll on the body and your health, both physical and mental. So anything that can relieve stress – even in small ways – is welcome.

Research is demonstrating how gratitude can help people cope with and recover from trauma, whether recent or in your distant past. This research primarily focuses on the correlation between gratitude as a personality trait and psychological outcomes of serious trauma. Research is beginning to find that those who possess “trait gratitude” more often experience positive growth out of traumatic incidents, rather than negative psychological impacts such as PTSD.

Researchers are beginning to see gratitude as a “protective factor” (as opposed to a risk factor) against PTSD. The American Psychological Association says that protective factors are linked to less likelihood of specific diagnoses, better mental health, and fewer negative impacts related to stress. Think of gratitude as exercise for emotional health!

Though exactly how gratitude helps you better handle stress isn’t clear, biologically, there’s been some relatively recent research that’s beginning to explore the issue. Theoretically, the correlation centers around positive psychology, an area of study focused on promoting well being and helping people thrive.

The “broaden-and-build” theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson says that experiencing and cultivating positive emotions, like gratitude, can lead to better well-being long term as we develop a broader perspective and find resources that help us become more resilient.

Focusing on gratitude also allows you to stop dwelling on the negative stress happening in your life, shifting your attention to more positive feelings and calming the body’s stress response.

Gratitude and mood

Studies have also shown a correlation between gratitude (both as a trait and a practice) and better mood outcomes. Much of this research centers around surveys and scales that measure gratitude as a trait, with a strong correlation between those who see the world in a positive way and less stress and greater happiness.There’s also some solid research around how the practice of gratitude benefits mood.

In a 2010 meta-review it was determined that those with higher levels of trait gratitude had lower incidence of depression, better overall well-being, and better social support systems. And a more recent October 2020 meta-analytic review of research showed a strong correlation between dispositional gratitude and well being.

A series of meta-analyses published in 2017 examined 38 studies focused on gratitude interventions comparing a group practicing gratitude with control groups. They consistently found that there were clear differences in self-reported measures of mental health and well-being in those who practiced gratitude. These measures included happiness, positive affect, satisfaction with life, depression, and quality of relationships, among others.

Although again, we don’t necessarily know why gratitude impacts mood in positive ways, do we really need to? I don’t think so; simply understanding that gratitude can make you feel better is enough reason to begin your own practice! So let’s get you started:

3 Simple Steps to Beginning a Gratitude Practice

With compelling research to suggest that gratitude is a natural, effective way to relieve stress and boost mood, I believe it’s one of the easiest ways to begin managing your health. In 2015, the first study to explore what happens in the brain when we express gratitude was published, through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging. This study found that the parts of the brain that correlate with moral cognition, social reward, interpersonal relationships and emotional perception are all activated when expressing gratitude.

Since our brain plays such a major role in both mental and physical health, it’s encouraging to hear that there are clear correlations between the practice of gratitude and specific regions of the brain that can help keep us connected to others – especially since social relationships are so important to maintaining a positive mood.

Here are three simple ways to begin a practice of gratitude. One of the best things about practicing gratitude is that you don’t need a lot of time; even just a few minutes makes a difference! I’ve found that gratitude is like love – the more you give, the more it grows. Though you’ll need to be intentional about the practice at first, my clients tell me that once they’ve been practicing for a while, they notice the little things more easily, and the grateful feelings come more automatically. In the meantime, set aside a few minutes dedicated to gratitude each day.

Think about it

That’s right – you can begin simply with thoughts. Take advantage of small pockets of time you have throughout the day, where you can’t be doing anything else anyway. Maybe you’re standing in line for coffee, or stopped at a traffic light, or waiting for a zoom meeting to begin. Use that time to pause and think about some of the amazing things in your life. Give thanks for having a car to get around in, for the ability to purchase what you need, or for the amazing sunset you see on your evening commute. Make a conscious effort, when you find yourself heading down a path of negativity, to stop and think about just one thing you have to be grateful for.

Write it down

Gratitude journals have become quite popular in recent years – with good reason. Writing something down solidifies it in your mind. There’s no wrong way to journal – just find what works for you. I have one friend who writes a stream of consciousness piece on Facebook almost every day, letting the world know what she’s thankful for, always ending with “Life is Good.” That kind of public declaration may seem daunting to you, but it works for her. Writing a bullet list of items you’re grateful for, or journaling in whatever way you like, can accomplish the same thing. Writing letters, email, or text to express thanks to people in your life is also a great way to practice gratitude (with the added bonus of sharing the good feelings with someone else).

Say it aloud

Yes, talking to yourself is okay! Positive affirmations and verbal expressions of gratitude, whether expressed in private or to others, are a great way to remind yourself of the good things in your life. Saying thank you or sharing the impact someone has on your life gets easier the more you practice. Start small, with a simple thank you, and work your way up to letting others know exactly how they make your life better.

No matter how you choose to practice gratitude, the benefits you’ll reap will make you want to do it more and more!

Jessica committed to starting her own practice of gratitude, and I can’t wait to hear how it goes. As the first month of the new year comes to a close, it’s the perfect time for you to begin as well. Here’s to a year filled with less stress, happier times, and a wealth of things to be grateful for!






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