Gratitude for mental wellbeing

Friday, 23 March 2018

Positive psychology, a branch of psychology focusing on promoting wellbeing, has identified various simple and effective behaviours which can provide a range of benefits including improved mood, happiness, and life satisfaction.

Whilst many definitions of gratitude exist, there is a common theme indicating a sense of being thankful and appreciative, and of having a sense of wonder (Toepfer, Cichy, & Peters, 2012).

Gratitude is a key behaviour influencing positive psychology.

The science of gratitude

While studies have found that happy people tend to be grateful people, what is really exciting is the growing evidence that practising gratitude can also improve our sense of happiness. The relationship between practising gratitude and increases in wellbeing has been studied through the use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). These studies allow us to measure the benefit of a treatment by comparing groups who complete the treatment to those who do not (control group). Gratitude studies have found positive results in a range of demographics, including people experiencing mental health difficulties, university students, and young adults.  Examples of benefits gained from gratitude interventions include:

  • improved sleep quality;
  • increased participation in exercise; and
  • improved mood (Emmons & Stern, 2013).

In a recent Australian study (Kerr, O’Donovan, & Pepping, 2015), participants on a wait-list for a psychology clinic kept a gratitude journal for two weeks, indicating on a daily basis up to five things they were grateful for.

Upon completion participants in the gratitude group indicated higher life-satisfaction and optimism and reduced anxiety, compared with participants in the control group.

Furthermore, a study involving university students (Toepfer et al., 2011) focused on the use of letter writing to express gratitude towards another person. The researchers found those in the letter writing group reported increased feelings of happiness and life satisfaction and decreases in depressive symptoms at the end of the study.

How do we practise gratitude?

Here are some ideas for practising gratitude.

  • Journal five things each day that you are grateful for.
  • Write a letter to thank someone who has impacted positively on your life. Be specific about what it is you appreciate about them, and send the letter. Alternatively, hand deliver the letter and read it to the recipient.
  • Be on the look-out for things to say thanks to. For instance, a stranger performing a kind deed, a friend providing a listening ear, receiving fabulous customer service.
  • Take a ‘gratitude walk’ and observe your environment with the intent to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. Examples include spotting a beautiful flower, a rainbow, striking architecture, witnessing acts of kindness amongst others.

We can be grateful for a wide range of things, both big and small, like:

  • Having positive people in our life
  • The smell of coffee in the morning
  • Our senses such as sight and sound
  • The song of local birds

Whilst gratitude sounds simple, it can take some effort to develop new behaviours and implement them regularly.  Reminders such as setting an alarm on your phone could help in the early days.

It is important to note that whilst gratitude can promote mental wellbeing, there are also times when we can benefit from professional support to manage life’s challenges. In these situations, GPs are a great starting point and are able to assist with identifying a mental health professional suitable for your needs.