Is Having Gratitude a Superpower?

6 min read  |  November 16, 2022  | 
Disponible en Español |

On our best days, we appreciate all that life has to offer. Being grateful for your health, your family and friends, or whatever makes you feel content, safe, and fulfilled is a powerful state of mind. Researchers have found that those who regularly reflect on these feelings are more optimistic, exercise more, and are generally in better health.

“Only recently has research verified that expressing and experiencing gratitude can bring peace of mind, more satisfying personal relationships, and happiness in general,” says Rosie E. Curiel Cid, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist with the University of Miami Health System.

What can gratitude do for you?

Over the last few decades, researchers have explored the connection between gratitude and well-being. They have come up with the following theories on how and why this emotion is so impactful.

  • Gratitude directs our attention away from toxic emotions and toward positive things we didn’t previously recognize as being important.
  • Gratitude and suffering are competing emotions, so you can’t experience both at the same time.
  • Gratitude can help you, even if you don’t share your thoughts of appreciation with others.
  • Acknowledging and reflecting on gratefulness may help train the brain to be more aware of and responsive to gratitude, which could help improve mental health over time.
  • Functional brain imaging (fMRI) studies have linked feelings of gratitude to the brain’s reward system (including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, and dopaminergic pathways). This means that experiencing gratitude feels good.

Amp up your gratitude.

“Positive emotions can be summoned at will. Doing so builds an ‘emotional muscle’ that can develop over time,” Dr. Curiel Cid says. “Gratitude’s benefits take time to improve mental health, but an immediate benefit may be experienced by some.”

Certain actions can boost feelings of appreciation. 

The two most studied gratitude practices involve writing. That’s because it is far more effective than simply thinking about what you’re thankful for. You can count your blessings in a gratitude journal or write thank-you letters to others. 

Psychologists found that adults who regularly wrote about their gratitude during a 10-week study reported feeling more optimistic and better about their lives. The same participants also exercised more and needed fewer doctor visits (compared to those who were prompted to write about their aggravation during the study). 

Another study found that seniors who journaled daily about their gratitude reported feeling less lonely and in better health.

“Each day for at least one week, write down three things that went well for you today,” Dr. Curiel Cid says. 

“Provide an explanation for why they went well. These items can be relatively small in importance (like, ‘My child did their homework without my nudging’) or relatively large (‘I earned a big promotion’). To make this exercise part of your daily routine, some find that writing before bed is helpful.”

  • Give the event or item a title (for example, ‘I had enough energy today to complete my to-do list’).
  • Write down precisely what happened in as much detail as possible. Include what you did or said and, if others were involved, what they did or said.
  • Explain how this event made you feel at the time, how it made you feel later, and how you feel about it now as you recall it.
  • Explain what you think caused this event.
  • Include as much detail as you’d like.
  • Write in your natural style and tone without worrying about grammar and spelling. This writing is for you, not an audience.
  • If your mind drifts to negative thoughts, refocus on the good event and the positive feelings that came with it. This gets easier with practice.

Writing gratitude letters for others can remind you that you’re not alone.

Even if you’re fiercely independent and hard-working, you have someone, someplace, or something that helped you make good choices.

Expressing that appreciation on paper can shift your attention away from negative emotions (like resentment and envy) toward humility, kindness, and healing.

  • On paper, describe how a person or group has positively impacted you and how grateful you are for their presence in your life or the world.
  • Think beyond those who have been generous to you.
  • Consider thanking the pets, places (cities, homes, schools, national parks), physical objects (plants, food, clothing), and organizations (girl scouts, athletic league, volunteer work) that enrich your life.
  • What about those who have given you emotional support, spiritual guidance, and academic or professional encouragement over the years?
  • Who taught you how to cook, dance, play an instrument or a sport, or stand up for yourself? Identify something you’re proud of, then write a gratitude letter to the source of your inspiration.
  • You don’t have to share this letter with anyone. You can benefit solely from the experience of exploring positive thoughts and emotions directed outside of yourself. You may choose to express appreciation for a parent, teacher, or friend who has passed away or someone you’re no longer in touch with.

Researchers compared those who wrote gratitude letters with those who didn’t. When the letter writers experienced gratitude, they also experienced greater activation of the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate attention, inhibitory control, habit formation, and memory.

“This is striking,” Dr. Curiel Cid says, “as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.”

When it’s hard to be grateful…

Some people assume they have little or nothing to be thankful for. They consider themselves to be hopeless failures with bad luck or self-made successes. No one has ever handed them anything. But, regardless of your situation in life, you can still tap into the experience and benefits of gratitude. 

“It is good to feel proud of your accomplishments and gratified by a job well done, but gratitude can also be experienced for the gifts we have that are not necessarily deemed to be extraordinary,” says Dr. Curiel Cid.

“In our every day, we can experience deep gratitude for the ‘ordinary.’ You can be grateful for a sense of well-being; inner peace; the ability to walk, see, or hear; and coming home to loved ones. By practicing gratitude, even for the ‘little things,’ we become more attuned to the full range of experiences that surround us, that can fill us with this positive and pro-social emotion.”

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributor to UHealth’s news service.

Tags: Dr. Rosie E. Curiel Cid, feel grateful, gratitude interventions, positive psychology, reducing stress, role of positive emotions

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