Health benefits of gratitude

woman holding her heart

Saying thank you is nothing new. But practicing gratitude — regularly focusing on the positive parts of your life — is about more than having good manners. It can be a powerful health habit.

Research shows that practicing gratitude — 15 minutes a day, five days a week — for at least six weeks can enhance mental wellness and possibly promote a lasting change in perspective. Gratitude and its mental health benefits can also positively affect your physical health.

Health benefits of being thankful

You’ll get the biggest health benefits of gratitude when it becomes habitual and part of your thought process. But even allotting some time each day or week to prioritize gratitude can be beneficial.

Taking time to be thankful may:

Reduce depression

A review of 70 studies that include responses from more than 26,000 people found an association between higher levels of gratitude and lower levels of depression. But more research needs to be done to understand the association. 

Gratitude seems to reduce depression symptoms — people with a grateful mindset report higher satisfaction with life, strong social relationships and more self-esteem than those who don’t practice gratitude. But it’s also possible that depressed people are less likely to practice gratitude. Most likely, there’s a continuous relationship where gratitude lessens symptoms of depression, allowing people to recognize what they have.

Lessen anxiety

Anxiety often involves worrying and negative thinking — typically about things that happened in the past or may occur in the future. 

Gratitude can be a coping tool for anxiety. Regularly practicing gratitude combats negative thinking patterns by keeping thoughts focused on the present. If you find yourself focusing on negative thoughts about the past or future, challenge yourself to find something you are grateful for now. It will break the negative thought process and return you to the present.

Support heart health

Many benefits of gratitude also support heart health. Improving depression symptoms, sleep, diet and exercise reduces the risk of heart disease. Several studies show that a grateful mindset positively affects biomarkers associated with the risk for heart disease.

A 2021 review of research also finds that keeping a gratitude journal can cause a significant drop in diastolic blood pressure — the force your heart exerts between beats. Having grateful thoughts, even if you don’t write them down, also helps your heart by slowing and regulating your breathing to synchronize with your heartbeat.

Relieve stress

Stress triggers a fight-or-flight response in your nervous system — your heart beats faster, muscles contract and adrenaline pumps. But gratitude can help calm the nervous system. 

Taking a moment to be thankful causes physiological changes in your body that initiate the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of your nervous system that helps you rest and digest. Gratitude and the response it causes help bring down your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing to help with overall relaxation. 

Improve sleep

People with an attitude of gratitude tend to pursue goals that keep them feeling good — a positive attitude promotes positive action. They engage in activities that support healthy sleep, such as eating well and exercising regularly. Practicing gratitude also makes you less likely to be stressed, anxious or depressed — three factors that affect sleep quality and duration.

But what you do during the day isn’t the only factor in sleeping well. Thinking positive thoughts before falling asleep promotes better sleep — and there’s evidence that gratitude causes people to have positive thoughts about their life, social support and social situations. 

Tips for practicing gratitude

Many people think of gratitude as a trait. But if you practice it, focusing on the positive things in life can become a habit and eventually come naturally to you.

The best way to form a mindset of gratitude is to slip it in throughout the day. You can incorporate more gratitude in your life by:

  • Writing it down: Take time either at night or in the morning to write down something that went well. Dedicate a notebook or journal to gratitude so you can reflect and remind yourself of those moments.
  • Hitting pause: Many of us reflexively say, “thanks” often. Next time you hear yourself say it, stop and pinpoint precisely what you are thankful for. 
  • Redirecting your thoughts: You may feel negative or frustrated during the day. When that happens, step back and shift your focus to a positive aspect of the situation.
  • Sharing your gratitude: Send a quick note telling someone why you are thankful for them or encourage your family to share something they’re grateful for each night at dinner.

Take the Next Step

To learn more about how gratitude and mindfulness might benefit your health, reach out to your primary care physician.