Counting your blessings is more than just a feel-good practice, it can actually boost your physical and mental health. Learn how giving thanks does your body and mind good, and the simple ways you can express it.

In its most basic sense, gratitude is the appreciation of what is meaningful and valuable.

Gratitude makes us feel good, but beyond just the psychological benefit, an abundance of research suggests that experiencing gratitude is also associated with greater health and an elevated sense of well-being.

Just how does feeling thankful benefit us?

Gratitude as a trait or a state

In studying the science of appreciation, psychologists and researchers have identified gratitude as both a state and a trait.

This means that we can experience gratitude in more ways than one: we can feel the positive emotions of gratitude as a response toward a specific event or experience (state) or as part of our personal disposition, generally observing and appreciating the positive aspects of the world around us day-to-day (trait).

Can trait gratitude predict health and well-being?

While counting our blessings can make us feel all warm and fuzzy in the moment, plenty of research backs up the notion that feeling gratitude on a trait level can even predict our sense of well-being and happiness in the future.

To illustrate this, research from 2021 studied the relationship between gratitude, wellbeing, spirituality, and experiencing meaningful work among adults between the ages of 18 and 74. After asking subjects to complete questionnaires assessing levels of gratitude, happiness, life satisfaction, spirituality, and positive relationship status and meaning through work, researchers concluded that those who scored highest in gratitude scored higher in the other realms as well. In other words, they were able to find a positive relationship between gratitude and other facets of life such as overall wellbeing.

Another study evaluated the effectiveness of gratitude letter writing for enhancing mental health wellness among 293 adults with a mean age of 22 years old who were seeking psychological care. Each subject placed in the gratitude letter writing group was instructed to write a letter expressing gratitude to someone they had not appropriately thanked previously. Researchers found that at both 4 and 12 weeks after writing the letter, the subjects reported better mental health than those who did not write a gratitude letter.

Gratitude not only improves our emotional health and well-being - it appears to also positively impact the body and brain. A 2017 study evaluated the heart rate and brain activity of 32 healthy adults aged 22 years old before, during, and after completing gratitude and resentment interventions. During the gratitude intervention, the subjects were asked to spend time focusing on a mental image of their mother and their appreciation of her. For the resentment intervention, they were asked to focus on a person or moment that made them angry. During the gratitude intervention, the subjects’ heart rate notably decreased while it increased during the resentment task.

While these findings may come as no surprise, it is interesting to think about exactly why gratitude as a trait is so beneficial for our health, and the answer lies in the simple fact that grateful people tend to engage in more health-promoting behaviors.

Grateful people report a greater sense of mastery over their lives, more vitality, and less anxiety and stress.  They are more likely to be more optimistic, emotionally stable, and conscientious, and partake in healthier behaviors like staying active, eating nutritionally, maintaining social support, and seeking healthcare - all of which lead to a higher likelihood of positive physical health outcomes.

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions

One theory called the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions is also looked upon to help clarify how gratitude helps us in maneuvering life.

This theory states that positive emotions like gratitude broaden our range of thoughts and awareness to help us make sense of negative situations and build personal resources, skills, and behaviors to enhance resilience in the face of everyday stressors.

Specifically, positive emotions can advance our intellectual resources by helping us to learn new information and develop our problem-solving skills, our physical resources by developing our coordination and strength, our social resources by making new connections with others, and our psychological resources by developing a sense of identity and optimism.

Practical and simple ways to show your gratitude

Beyond simply uttering a heartfelt “thank you” to someone who deserves it, there are many ways to show gratitude to those in our lives, as well as opportunities to personally reflect on all our blessings. Here are just a few.

Journaling about what you are grateful for. Make it a habit each night to write down at least three (or more) things each day you feel gratitude for. Observing your blessings written down in black and white can be powerful in reinforcing how lucky you really are.

Writing and sending a letter to someone to express appreciation. Sometimes when life gets away from us, we forget to properly thank the generous people in our lives. Spend some time writing a letter to a loved one who made an impact on your life to show your full appreciation.

Meditating on the gratitude you feel in the present moment. Taking a few minutes during the day to meditate and reflect on the blessings in your life, preferably sitting still in a quiet space with your eyes closed, can bring you out of the day’s chaos and pull you back to the present moment to remind you of what you have to be thankful for.

Write thank you notes. Acknowledging the receipt of a gift or a charitable gesture with a handwritten thank you note is a gracious yet simple way to express how grateful you are.