Expressing gratitude improves mental and physical health, sleep quality, and teenage behavior
Many gratitude studies use writing as a way for people to express their gratitude. Among 293 people seeking psychotherapy services, those that wrote letters of gratitude reported significantly better mental health than control subjects both 4 weeks and 12 weeks after writing the letters. And a study of 192 people found that those who expressed gratitude through writing had a more positive outlook on life, experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness, and exercised nearly 1.5 hours more per week than control subjects.
Gratitude seems to be directly protective against stress and depression. A longitudinal study of college students found that those who felt more grateful experienced lower levels of stress and depression. The authors of the study suggest, as do other researchers, that this evidence has implications for clinical interventions in psychotherapy, since simple gratitude exercises often result in significant mental health improvements.
Feeling grateful may be a key factor in recovering from traumatic events. Research shows that among people with PTSD, those who express gratitude have higher self-esteem and improved daily functioning. And in studies of Vietnam War veterans and survivors of the September 11th attacks, those who felt that they had greater appreciation for their life, family, and friends, and were now “living life to the full,” were better able to recover from the trauma.
Expressing gratitude is especially important for people suffering from an illness, since these people are at increased risk for deteriorating mental health. A study of organ transplant patients found that those who spent 21 days writing down what they were grateful for experienced improved mental health and general well-being. Instead of experiencing no change, the control group had decreased mental health and well-being scores, showing the negative effects of suffering from a chronic illness.
Likewise, a study of people with neuromuscular disease over a 21-day period found that those who expressed gratitude had more positive high-energy moods, felt more optimistic about their life, felt more connected to others, and had longer sleep duration and better sleep quality relative to controls. And a study of heart failure patients found that those who felt more grateful experienced better sleep, less fatigue, fewer depressive symptoms, and better self-efficacy to maintain their cardiac function.
Better sleep might not be something you’d expect to get from expressing gratitude. But in a study of 401 people, those who felt more grateful got on average 30 minutes more sleep per night. They also had better sleep quality and sleep latency (time it takes to fall asleep) and less daytime fatigue than people who felt less grateful. The study used measures of gratefulness combined with self-reported pre-sleep cognitions (the thoughts we have just before we fall asleep). Previous research has linked positive pre-sleep cognitions to better sleep and negative pre-sleep cognitions with impaired sleep, but this was the first to show a direct link between gratitude and sleep quality. The study authors suggest the potential for using gratitude interventions in the treatment of insomnia.
Researchers from Hong Kong examined the complex relationship between gratitude, sleep, anxiety, and depression in 224 patients with chronic pain. They found a direct link between gratitude and depression, as the patients who expressed more gratitude experienced fewer depressive symptoms. But sleep played a significant role in the gratitude-anxiety relationship; the patients who expressed more gratitude experienced better sleep, which in turn improved their symptoms of anxiety. Similarly, other research shows that insufficient sleep can increase anxiety levels by 30%, and deep non-REM sleep is a natural anxiety inhibitor.
If you have children, experts recommend cultivating an attitude of gratitude with them early on. Among 221 6th and 7th graders, the students who expressed more gratitude were also more optimistic, had higher life satisfaction, and had higher satisfaction with their school experience.
A study of 700 students ages 10 to 14 found that grateful teens have fewer depressive symptoms, are happier with their lives overall, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and are less likely to have behavior problems at school. And a study of adolescents ages 11 to 17 found that daily gratitude journaling resulted in a significant decrease in materialism and an increase in gratitude and generosity. This finding is meaningful, as materialism in youth is on the rise, and it has been linked to anxiety and depression.