The Science Behind Gratitude

By Sarah Hunt, AZFB Communications Intern


Photo: Canva


This year has been known to already be one of the hardest years humanity has had to go through. Many jobs have been lost, putting people out of work and families at risk of being evicted and having a lack of food to eat. Social isolation and social distancing has put space between us when we most need comfort and reassurance. The wearing or not wearing of masks has caused fights between people in grocery stores and other public places, when we should just be giving care and empathy for one another’s health and making sure we’re all okay.

Riots, protests, and looting have increased the chaos in our country. Attention drawn to racial inequality and mistreatment, human trafficking, and the amount of hurricanes destroying homes and misplacing families has made it clear there is help needed in every area of the human family’s life. Election year, with its hateful debates between Democrats and Republicans, has stressed all of us out for months, on top of a world-wide pandemic that has caused many to lose their loved ones too soon or have even more challenging health problems than they previously had.

Although 2020 has brought many challenges, one practice we can do to help us feel more at peace and find some joy is to practice gratitude. Read this excerpt from the Greater Good Magazine at University of California, Berkeley, where scientists at the college conducted a study on gratitude and its effects of improving our mental health.

“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, the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. 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
  3. Gratitude’s benefits take time
  4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain”

Read the descriptions of each of these 4 findings and the entirety of the full article here.

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