Thanksgiving means different things to different people. For some, it represents a time to eat good food and spend time with loved ones. For others, it’s a reminder of estranged relationships or what may be lacking in one’s life. Regardless of what Thanksgiving means for you, this might be the time to take stock of your life and figure out what you feel thankful for.
Gratitude, or the feeling of thankfulness and appreciation, is a powerful emotion. It’s a way we recognize things in our lives that make us feel safe, supported, happy, and peaceful. Taking time to reflect on what we have in our lives, rather than focusing on what we don’t or can’t have, should not just be a one-time event in the fall. Gratitude has been shown time and again to have benefits for our mental health and wellbeing throughout the year. Feeling more gratitude in one’s life is related to increased positive emotion and life satisfaction, as well as reduced neuroticism and less severe symptoms of depression (Iodice et al., 2021; Wood et al., 2010). In one study, feeling more gratitude was related to a lower frequency of suicidal thoughts in LGBTQ+ individuals (Kaniuka et al., 2020).
Gratitude may also benefit you if you are already in mental health treatment. One interesting study examined people who were in therapy for the first time and randomly assigned them to different “writing sessions” alongside their regular therapy sessions (Wong et al., 2018). Some people were instructed to journal about their thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences, while others were instructed to write letters expressing gratitude to others. People who wrote the gratitude letters reported better mental health three months later compared to the people who only journaled about stressful life experiences. It didn’t even matter whether people sent the letters or not, since the majority of people did not; simply the act of reflecting on what someone meant to them and focusing on the positives (versus the negatives) in one’s life was enough to help promote better mental health for those in therapy.
Practicing gratitude can take many forms. Some people like keeping a gratitude journal, where they jot down in a notebook or phone app one thing each day that they feel grateful for. You don’t have to write down a different thing each day or even write anything profound or meaningful. One day you might feel grateful for a friend calling you; the next you might be grateful that your bus came on time. There might be some weeks where it’s extremely hard to think of something. By making it a daily practice, you’re more likely to make it something that becomes routine and thus able to continue to reap the mental health benefits that feeling grateful can bring. If a daily practice sounds too demanding, maybe you could write a letter like the participants from the aforementioned study, expressing to someone you care about why you are thankful they are in your life. You could also decide to have a friend or mental health care provider help keep you “accountable” by reminding you about things in your life you feel grateful for or helping you brainstorm ways to cultivate more gratitude in your life.
To learn more about gratitude and how to practice it, check out these resources from the Greater Good Science Center.
Iodice, J. A., Malouff, J. M., & Schutte, N. S. (2021). The association between gratitude and depression: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Depression and Anxiety, 4(1), 1-12.
Kaniuka, A. R., Job, S. A., Brooks, B. D., & Williams, S. L. (2021). Gratitude and lower suicidal ideation among sexual minority individuals: Theoretical mechanisms of the protective role of attention to the positive. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16(6), 819-830.
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890-905.
Jasmine Mote, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Cambridge Psychology Group and Research Assistant Professor at Boston University. As part of the Approach Motivation and Participation Lab, she is interested in understanding the social and emotional difficulties of people living with serious mental illness. At CPG, Dr. Mote specializes in treating mood and anxiety disorders, psychosis-spectrum disorders, new parenthood, perinatal mental health, and racial/ethnic identity. If you like her writing, you can subscribe to her newsletter Mental Healthy, where she discusses mental health research related to pregnancy and parenting.