The practice of gratitude can be something small, like saying thank you to someone for holding open the door for you. It can also be more monumental: Thanking someone for being a mentor to you, supporting you through a tough time, or saving your life.
The interesting part, according to Glenn Fox, PhD, lecturer of entrepreneurship at USC Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles, who researches the neuroscience behind gratitude, is that all of it is really good for well-being and health.
What’s more, research suggests our brains are actually wired to respond positively to it, Fox explains.
“By practicing gratitude, we engage and strengthen these circuits, and thus gain more benefit from gratitude,” he says.
Here’s what you need to know about gratitude and how to cultivate and grow the practice in your own life.
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How Do Psychologists Define Gratitude?
Gratitude is the specific emotion of recognizing and appreciating something good, adds Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley.
“It’s about recognizing that another person has put effort into doing something good that has benefited us,” says Dr. Simon-Thomas.
There’s also distinct social bonding benefits from receiving gratitude — or feeling appreciated, adds Fox. “It’s part of our brains wiring,” he explains. We register it as a reward.
Why Practicing Gratitude Is Good for Your Body and Health
Research indeed shows that practicing gratitude often — that is, taking the time to recognize and appreciate the good things around you or the good things that people do for you — is good for many facets of health and well-being.
Gratitude can help build resilience, strengthen relationships, boost mental health, and even improve markers of physical health, like blood pressure and sleep, says Simon-Thomas.
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Types of Gratitude: Is Being Grateful and Expressing Gratitude Towards Others the Same?
You can be grateful for something intangible without a distinct giver — for example, you might feel gratitude toward being born into a loving family, savoring your first sip of fresh-brewed coffee in the morning, or a certain element of nature, like a serene forest or lake. Or you can be grateful for someone or something that someone specifically did for you.
And when it’s the latter, the act of actually expressing gratitude to another person, there are some unique and additional benefits, Simon-Thomas says. “There’s this shift of perspective from self-focus to other-focus. And when you feel gratitude toward someone else, you strengthen the brain pathways between feeling pleasure and goodness in other people,” Simon-Thomas says.
This type of gratitude promotes bonding and connection with others. You come away feeling as if others are trustworthy and will act with your best interests in mind, she explains.
“There’s an empathic resonance that happens when you say ‘thank you’ and the other person says ‘you’re welcome,’” says Simon-Thomas. On the receiving end of that thank you, she adds: “You get the validation that you are appreciated and seen.”
Just remember that if someone expresses gratitude towards you, acknowledge it by saying “you’re welcome” rather than “nah, forget it” or “no problem.” This helps the good vibes go both ways.
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Tips for Getting Better at Practicing Gratitude
If you’re not in the habit of expressing gratitude towards others or taking the time to appreciate those giver-less intangibles — or you want to get better at it — here are some tips.
To Get Better at Being Grateful
You can also practice being grateful for the things around you that aren’t linked to a specific individual or giver.
Try the following:
- Practice mindfulness. Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, MPH, LCSW-R, a therapist in private practice in Harrison, New York, who also teaches a graduate course in Mindfulness Practice at New York University, says part of practicing this type of gratitude is recognizing the present moment. So practicing mindfulness (a type of meditation) can help.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Toward the end of the day write down two or three things that you’re grateful for that happened during the day, Dr. Maidenberg suggests. The idea is that you’ll get in the habit of noticing those things you appreciate all day long, so you’ll get in the habit of noticing those things more regularly throughout the day and more frequently. If the idea of a journal or writing sounds like too much, say your list out loud to yourself, make sharing what you’re grateful for a regular dinner table conversation, or keep a running list in the notes app on your cellphone.
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- Take the time to savor what you truly enjoy. Notice the things that are around you that are important to you or meet your values. For example, if you love nature, take a minute to notice when the sun is out. Say to yourself, “the sun is out” and then stand there, breathe, and enjoy it for a few minutes, suggests Maidenberg.
- Give back. Practicing gratitude can also be giving back through charity work and service for others, Maidenberg says. “Gratitude isn’t just about speaking, it’s in the doing,” she says. One example is to look for the good that can come out of a crisis, such as collecting supplies for people affected by a hurricane. It’s also something that a family can do together to help instill appreciation and gratefulness in children.
- Reframe. Reframing your mindset is a contemplative practice that can be a powerful way to bring more gratitude into your life. And you do this by changing the way you speak or change the way the voice inside your head speaks to you. For example, instead of saying or thinking “I have to go to work today,” reframe it as “I get to go to work today and use my skills and talents.” Or instead of “My toddler is talking back to me," reframe it as “Wow, my toddler can express herself.” The idea isn’t to ignore the fact that going to work might come with stressors or take some energy from you — or that raising a toddler isn’t exhausting. The idea is to hone in on the good parts of even the challenging things that happen throughout your day. Recognizing that different emotions can coexist is ultimately really good for your well-being, Maidenberg says.
- Use an app. If you have a hard time remembering to take a moment for gratitude, you can download a gratitude app that sends random reminders to your phone to take a moment to pause and reflect, Maidenberg suggests. Gratitude Journal Affirmations and Presently are two options.
To Get Better at Expressing Gratitude Toward Others
- Start small. Acknowledge the little things people do for you over the course of a day, like holding the door open for you or calling or texting to say hello.
- Be specific. Call out the thing someone did for you that you’re appreciative of.
- Acknowledge the effort. Recognize the time and energy that went into it
- Explain why you’re grateful. Describing how you benefited or why you appreciated something can make it more meaningful. If, for example, a friend brings over some fresh-baked cookies, Simon-Thomas says you could say: “Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to bake me those delicious cookies. I was really craving something sweet that day, and it really hit the spot and made me feel loved.”
- Practice. “I’ve yet to hear that gratitude has backfired. It tends to work and lead to a shared warmth that’s fundamentally reinforcing for people, so you want to do it again,” she adds.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Fox G, Kaplan J, Damasio H, et al. Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology. September 30, 2015.
- Kini P, Wong J, McInnis S, et al. The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity. NeuroImage. March 2016.
- Cunha LZ, Pellanda LC, and Reppold CT. Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Frontiers in Psychology. March 21, 2019.
- Boggiss AL, Consedine NS, Brenton-Peters JM, et al. A Systematic Review of Gratitude Interventions: Effects on Physical Health and Health Behaviors. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. August 2020.
- Wong JY, Owen J, Gabana NT, et al. Does Gratitude Writing Improve the Mental Health of Psychotherapy Clients? Evidence From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychotherapy Research. March 2018.
- Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier. Harvard Medical School. April 14, 2021
- Gratitude. American Psychological Association.