Learning to express gratitude could have powerful benefits for your mental health. Explore the research and 3 ways you can begin infusing gratitude into your days.
The holidays are a time of connection and community; of being with those you love and taking stock of what truly matters. But what often gets left out of the holiday season’s branding is the stress.
Preparing holiday celebrations, trying to keep up with work as end-of-year fatigue sets in, stressing over personality clashes and tension with family coming to visit... The holidays can be overwhelming, to say the least.
Altogether, the holidays aren’t always the joyride Hallmark movies depict them as. They can be stressful and triggering for many, even when we want to enjoy them and those we love most. If you find the holidays more stressful than joyful, know you’re not alone. A 2015 survey by Healthline found that 62% of respondents qualified their stress as “very or somewhat elevated” around the holidays.1
So if you’re looking for something to help you endure the holidays this year, explore the practice of gratitude. Research shows that gratitude can be a powerful ally to center daily happiness and support mental health.
In this article, we’ll explore what gratitude is, the research behind it, and 3 ways you can begin practicing gratitude for a better holiday season this year.
What is Gratitude?
We are inextricably connected to the world in ways that can be powerfully positive. But it’s easy to get stuck focusing on the dark side of that equation. We ruminate on how people have hurt us and we endlessly stress over the state of the world. This is entirely natural. After all, our minds are hard-wired to take careful note of stressors and fear-inducing events so we can protect ourselves from them.
Over time, this stress and fear-oriented mindset can cost your mental and physical wellbeing. That’s where gratitude comes in.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines gratitude as “a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit (e.g., a present, favor) given by someone or a fortunate happenstance (e.g., a beautiful day).2
But gratitude is much more than just a general feeling of thankfulness, appreciation, and connectedness.
It’s a mindset; an outlook on life that can make the world feel more bearable. Seeing life through the lens of gratitude is a conscious choice that centers on what you have, rather than what you don’t.
An attitude of gratitude isn’t the same as toxic positivity or erasing negative thoughts. Rather, it’s about acknowledging what you do have in your life, even amidst tragedy or loss. Practicing gratitude is like throwing yourself a lifeline to pull yourself back to a grounded and safe place when life feels overwhelming.
The Benefits of Gratitude
Many who practice gratitude feel it invites a sense of abundance and makes life more joyful. This isn’t just lip service — studies show that for many of us, expressing gratitude can affect our mental and emotional wellbeing.
A meta-analysis of 62 studies involving over 26,000 children, adolescents, and adults found a significant association between gratitude and lower levels of depression.3 Other studies similarly suggest that gratitude can have positive effects in helping us feel good, enjoy our lives more, and connect more deeply with our loved ones.
Here are some of the positive impacts researchers have linked with cultivating gratitude: 4, 5, 6, 7
- More life satisfaction
- More optimism
- More happiness
- Improved work/life balance
- Better self-esteem
- Stronger resilience
- Closer relationships
- Fewer negative emotions and less mental distress
- Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Small (but significant) drops in stress biomarkers
- Improvements in sleep quality
- Less time to fall asleep
- Slower breathing that helps slow heart rate
- Drops in diastolic blood pressure
It’s important to note that results have been mixed and not all participants saw benefits. For instance, certain studies did not find benefits for elderly individuals and people with PTSD or schizophrenia. However, the lack of adverse outcomes suggests there are few downsides to trying it for yourself.
3 Ways You Can Begin Practicing Gratitude This Year
So you’re curious to try gratitude practices for yourself. The good news: it doesn’t take much to practice gratitude. All you need to start is a pen, paper, and 5-10 minutes a day.
If you don’t have time for daily gratitude, don’t worry. Numerous studies have found that connecting with feelings of gratitude just once a week can still have positive emotional effects.8
1. Reflect on what you're grateful for.
Reflecting on what you’re grateful for can be a powerful way to center gratitude daily. There are many ways you can get creative with this.
For instance, gratitude journaling. Gratitude journaling works by slowly changing the way we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on.
To begin, journal three to five things you’re grateful for every morning. Be as specific as you can. Additionally, one of the premiere researchers on gratitude, Dr. Robert Emmons, suggests focusing on gratitude that comes from external sources.9
These external sources of gratitude could include people who've impacted you, big and small moments, events, and even daily technologies that make life easier, better, and more joy-filled.
Here are a few questions to inspire you in your explorations of gratitude.
- What are some simple daily rituals that make you feel better?
- What do you like about the weather this week?
- What’s your favorite place in town?
- What went better than you expected recently?
- What opportunities have you had this week to use your strengths or talents?
- What do you enjoy about the food or drinks you had today?
- Who makes you laugh or puts a smile on your face?
- Who has positively impacted your life?
- What do you like about each of your friends?
For more prompts, you can explore this list of 100 questions to inspire gratitude by researcher Joel Wong, Ph.D.9
2. Write a letter of gratitude.
One of the most studied gratitude exercises is writing gratitude letters.
For instance, a respected study published in Psychotherapy Research explored the impact of writing gratitude letters for 293 college students seeking counseling for mental health.
Researchers assigned students to three groups. The first group would write a letter of gratitude to someone once a week in addition to their psychotherapy sessions. The second group would write about their thoughts and feelings about negative experiences once a week alongside their psychotherapy sessions. The third group only received counseling.
Four and twelve weeks after the study ended, researchers found that those who’d written weekly gratitude letters had significantly better mental health compared to the other groups.10
Here’s some guidance to get started writing your own letter of gratitude.
Think of someone in your life who has made an impact on you. This could be someone who’s been a long-term support system for you or someone who recently did something kind or made you feel good.
As you begin writing, get specific. What did they do that was so meaningful to you? How did it make you feel? Paint a picture and be generous with your compliments. A final note — there’s no pressure to send the letter. Researchers found participants saw benefits whether or not they sent their letters, so just focus on expressing your gratitude. You can decide whether to send your letter later.
3. Create visual reminders of your gratitude.
Fill your days with gratitude by creating visual reminders of everything that fills you with appreciation and makes you feel blessed.
You might choose to create a gratitude jar, as one woman did after losing several loved ones in 2022. Struggling with grief, she decided to write a few things that made her feel blessed on scraps of paper and add them into a mason jar every night.9
Over time, your gratitude jar will fill and serve as a visual reminder of how much support and love flows through your life. You could make it a yearly habit to empty the jar and review the notes on New Year’s Eve.
Or you could write down your thoughts of gratitude on Post-its and stick them around your workspace or home. This way, when you’re feeling down, all you need to do is look around at all your notes for reminders of everything you have in your life.
Don’t limit yourself to one gratitude practice or another. If your gratitude jar is feeling stale, try out new and creative ways to track your grateful moments.
We hope this article has served as an inspiration and guide to infusing gratitude into your life for a better holiday season this year. And if you’re looking for more support for your mental and physical health, Evie Ring's got you covered.
- Holiday Stress and the Brain | Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Hms.harvard.edu. https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/holiday-stress-brain#:~:text=Sixty%2Dtwo%20percent%20of%20respondents
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Dictionary.apa.org. https://dictionary.apa.org/gratitude
Jo A, I., John M, M., & Nicola S, S. (2021). The Association between Gratitude and Depression: A Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Depression and Anxiety, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.23937/2643-4059/1710024
Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2020). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(6), 743–782. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1651888
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66(1), 43–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.002
Adair, K. C., Rodriguez-Homs, L. G., Masoud, S., Mosca, P. J., & Sexton, J. B. (2019). Gratitude at Work: Prospective Cohort Study of a Web-Based, Single-Exposure Well-Being Intervention for Health Care Workers (Preprint). Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(5). https://doi.org/10.2196/15562
Rash, J. A., Matsuba, M. K., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Gratitude and Well-Being: Who Benefits the Most from a Gratitude Intervention? Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3(3), 350–369. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01058.x
Toepfer, S. M., Cichy, K., & Peters, P. (2011). Letters of Gratitude: Further Evidence for Author Benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(1), 187–201. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7
- Caron, C. (2023, June 8). Gratitude Really is Good for You. Here’s What the Science Shows. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/08/well/mind/gratitude-health-benefits.html
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192–202. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332