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Practicing Gratitude can be Good for Mental Health and Well-Being

     

Could writing about what you’re thankful for make you feel better? Two studies suggest that it can. Expressing gratitude has been associated with increased well-being, decreased stress and feelings of depression and anxiety.

Gratitude practices are among a number of positive psychological interventions focused on prevention and wellness rather than illness. Other examples include interventions relating to creativity, mindfulness, or a building on personal strengths.

gratitude

For example, one study found expressing gratitude can help address chronic occupational stress. Researchers compared groups of health care practitioners in a stressful work situation in a double-blind randomized controlled trial. They found that health care workers who kept gratitude diaries had reduced depressive symptoms and reduced perceived stress compared to groups that kept hassle diaries or no diaries. The study authors conclude that “taking stock of thankful events is an effective approach to reduce stress and depressive symptoms among health care practitioners." 1

Gratitude writing can also be used along with psychotherapy. A 2016 randomized controlled trial involving almost 300 adults looked at using gratitude writing in addition to psychotherapy. 2 Study participants were assigned to one of three groups: psychotherapy only, psychotherapy plus expressive writing (participants wrote about their thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences), and psychotherapy plus gratitude writing (participants wrote letters expressing gratitude toward others).

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One week after the therapy/writing activities ended, people in the different groups did not show a difference in mental health levels. However, after four weeks, the gratitude group reported better mental health than the other groups and after 12 weeks the difference was even greater. People in the study were given the option to send their gratitude letter or not. While most people chose not to send the letters, the study found that people benefitted from the act of writing the gratitude letters regardless of whether they decided to send them or not.

Authors Joel Wong, Ph.D., and Joshua Brown, Ph.D., writing in Greater Good from University of California, Berkeley, suggest that “if you’re thinking of writing a letter to gratitude to someone, but you’re unsure whether you want that person to read the letter, we encourage you to write it anyway. You can decide later whether to send it (and we think it’s often a good idea to do so). But the mere act of writing the letter can help you appreciate the people in your life and shift your focus away from negative feelings and thoughts.”

The researchers also looked at brain activity using an fMRI scanner, and found that brain changes in the gratitude group continued at three months after the therapy/writing. They suggest this means that “practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.”

References

  1. Cheng, ST, et al. Improving mental health in health care practitioners: randomized controlled trail of a gratitude intervention. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2015, 83(1):177-86.
  2. Wong, YJ, et al. Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research. 2016, 3:1-11.

     

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