Science Explains the Exceptional Benefits of Gratitude

Maren Hunsberger
Science Explains the Exceptional Benefits of Gratitude

Feeling grateful is something we may have to stop and really make time for in a busy life, but it’s not just for the Thanksgiving table. It turns out that being mindful about taking time for gratitude may have some surprising effects on you and those around you – mentally and even physically. These are five of the most impactful ways that practicing gratitude can have a tangible effect in your life:

1. Strengthen Your Relationships

Several psychological studies have shown that expressing gratitude to and about your partner or a friend can enhance your perception of that relationship’s strength and connectedness.

In one study, people who took the time to reflect on and verbalize or show in some way that they were grateful for certain things about their partner or friend scored higher on tests measuring a feeling of “communal strength” in that relationship. Not only did the person expressing the gratitude feel the benefits, but the person receiving the gratitude also felt that the relationship had been strengthened.

Gratitude feeds appreciation, which feeds positivity and connection between you and the person with whom you are practicing gratitude.

2. Improve Your Honesty

Another relationship-centered study showed strong evidence that in relationships where gratitude was given and received more often, partners felt more comfortable voicing concerns and bringing up issues in non-confrontational ways.

This kind of behavior allows relationships more honesty and authenticity – because both parties feel securely loved and appreciated, they are less afraid to broach topics that may be more difficult to discuss. They are more receptive to feedback and to changing their behavior, both of which can lead to improved long-term relationship success.

3. Boost Your Long-Term Happiness

It may seem like a thought of gratitude is just a blip in your mind, a tiny part of your day hardly taking up any time, but a wealth of research – thoroughly covered in the 2007 book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier – suggests that it can have a far-reaching impact on your life.

Keeping gratitude in your mind as a base psychological state to return to, and practicing it regularly – just as you would yoga – has been shown to improve long-term happiness outcomes and life contentment in individuals who embrace it.

4. Help Ease Your Aches and Pains

The practice of gratitude has been linked in many studies to a decrease in self-reported physical symptoms of stress, fatigue, soreness, and illness, as well as an increase in participation in physical activity, better amount and quality of sleep, and improved immunity.

Feeling grateful is certainly not a cure-all for disease, but the field of positive psychology and the mind-body connection is a burgeoning area of research with some fascinating implications. The upshot is, your outlook and attitude have a much greater influence over how you feel physically than you might think. For more detail, check out the book Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.

5. It’s Part of What Makes You Human

This last point is less of an effect of gratitude and more of a quality. The root driver of all behavior of all life is theorized to be the drive to ensure that your genetic code survives and is passed on. Unlike many other qualities, gratitude doesn’t seem, at least on face value, to directly support this drive. It’s not surprising, then, that gratitude is far from widespread in nature.

Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that gratitude is an essential part of a trait called reciprocal altruism, or the exchange of benefits among non-relatives – that is, incurring cost to yourself with no immediate return benefit to yourself, in order to support someone who will not increase your chances of passing on your genes.

Gratitude also may play a role in the existence of something called ‘upstream reciprocity’, a paying-it-forward of a benefit that you didn’t ‘earn’ – that is, something that was gifted to you randomly – to someone else, perhaps a stranger. These kinds of behavior are relatively rare in nature, and so the existence of gratitude in our species, Homo sapiens, is something that may make us uniquely human.

Try to incorporate a gratitude practice into your daily routine, perhaps right after you wake up, right before you go to sleep, or during your yoga practice. Recognizing positivity and being grateful can be life-changing, both mentally and physically.