“How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain”

New research is starting to explore how gratitude works to improve our mental health.


With the rise of managed health care, which emphasizes cost-efficiency and brevity, mental health professionals have had to confront this burning question: How can they help clients derive the greatest possible benefit from treatment in the shortest amount of time?

Recent evidence suggests that a promising approach is to complement psychological counseling with additional activities that are not too taxing for clients but yield high results. In our own research, we have zeroed in on one such activity: the practice of gratitude. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed. 

The problem is that most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with well-functioning people. Is gratitude beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns? And, if so, how?

We set out to address these questions in a recent research study involving nearly 300 adults, mostly college students who were seeking mental health counseling at a university. We recruited these participants just before they began their first session of counseling, and, on average, they reported clinically low levels of mental health at the time. The majority of people seeking counseling services at this university in general struggled with issues related to depression and anxiety.

We randomly assigned our study participants into three groups. Although all three groups received counseling services,

  1. The first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three months,
  2. Whereas the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences.
  3. The third group did not do any writing activity.

What did we find? Compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.

And that’s not all. When we dug deeper into our results, we found indications of how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies. While not definitive, here are four insights from our research suggesting what might be behind gratitude’s psychological benefits.

1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions.

2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it. We told participants who were assigned to write gratitude letters that they weren’t required to send their letters to their intended recipient. In fact, only 23 percent of participants who wrote gratitude letters sent them. But those who didn’t send their letters enjoyed the benefits of experiencing gratitude nonetheless.

3. Gratitude’s benefits gradually accrued over time.  

4. Gratitude has lasting, positive effects on the brain.

The Bible is spot-on to the research findings of Dr. Brown and Dr. Wong:

The Apostle Paul challenges us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Maintain an attitude of gratitude.

Paul instructs to have confidence and gratitude toward God no matter the situation.  Romans 8:28 exclaims, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”…Why do we believe this?  V. 29 explains that in our time of need or hurt, we cry out to God.  The end result is that we look and act more like His compassionate Son.

So, in this day of elections let’s heed the above Words of gratitude and practice the following verses from Ps. 112:6&7, “For the righteous will never be moved. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.”

If you are challenged mentally, I like the idea of writing “gratitude letters” and send them.  Do one per week for 3 months.  Also, place a sticky note on your bathroom mirror reminding you to quote out loud and practice 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 above.  Let’s practice gratitude and get mentally well together.

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