Study shows how practicing gratitude can help train your brain and improve mental health over time

With the rise of man­aged health care, which empha­sizes cost-effi­cien­cy and brevi­ty, men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als have had to con­front this burn­ing ques­tion: How can they help clients derive the great­est pos­si­ble ben­e­fit from treat­ment in the short­est amount of time?

Recent evi­dence sug­gests that a promis­ing approach is to com­ple­ment psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­sel­ing with addi­tion­al activ­i­ties that are not too tax­ing for clients but yield high results. In our own research, we have zeroed in on one such activ­i­ty: the prac­tice of grat­i­tude. Indeed, many stud­ies over the past decade have found that peo­ple who con­scious­ly count their bless­ings tend to be hap­pi­er and less depressed.

We set out to address these ques­tions in a recent research study involv­ing near­ly 300 adults, most­ly col­lege stu­dents, who were seek­ing men­tal health coun­sel­ing at a uni­ver­si­ty. We recruit­ed these par­tic­i­pants just before they began their first ses­sion of coun­sel­ing, and, on aver­age, they report­ed clin­i­cal­ly low lev­els of men­tal health at the time. The major­i­ty of peo­ple seek­ing coun­sel­ing ser­vices at this uni­ver­si­ty in gen­er­al strug­gled with issues relat­ed to depres­sion and anxiety.The prob­lem is that most research stud­ies on grat­i­tude have been con­duct­ed with col­lege stu­dents or oth­er well-func­tion­ing peo­ple. Is grat­i­tude ben­e­fi­cial for peo­ple who strug­gle with men­tal health con­cerns? And, if so, how?

We ran­dom­ly assigned our study par­tic­i­pants into three groups. Although all three groups received coun­sel­ing ser­vices, the first group was also instruct­ed to write one let­ter of grat­i­tude to anoth­er per­son each week for three weeks, where­as the sec­ond group was asked to write about their deep­est thoughts and feel­ings about neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences. The third group did not do any writ­ing activity.

What did we find? Com­pared with the par­tic­i­pants who wrote about neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences or only received coun­sel­ing, those who wrote grat­i­tude let­ters report­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter men­tal health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writ­ing exer­cise end­ed. This sug­gests that grat­i­tude writ­ing can be ben­e­fi­cial not just for healthy, well-adjust­ed indi­vid­u­als, but also for those who strug­gle with men­tal health con­cerns. In fact, it seems, prac­tic­ing grat­i­tude on top of receiv­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­sel­ing car­ries greater ben­e­fits than coun­sel­ing alone, even when that grat­i­tude prac­tice is brief.

And that’s not all. When we dug deep­er into our results, we found indi­ca­tions of how grat­i­tude might actu­al­ly work on our minds and bod­ies. While not defin­i­tive, here are four insights from our research sug­gest­ing what might be behind gratitude’s psy­cho­log­i­cal benefits.

1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions

First, by ana­lyz­ing the words used by par­tic­i­pants in each of the two writ­ing groups, we were able to under­stand the mech­a­nisms behind the men­tal health ben­e­fits of grat­i­tude let­ter writ­ing. We com­pared the per­cent­age of pos­i­tive emo­tion words, neg­a­tive emo­tion words, and “we” words (first-per­son plur­al words) that par­tic­i­pants used in their writ­ing. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, those in the grat­i­tude writ­ing group used a high­er per­cent­age of pos­i­tive emo­tion words and “we” words, and a low­er pro­por­tion of neg­a­tive emo­tion words, than those in the oth­er writ­ing group.

How­ev­er, peo­ple who used more pos­i­tive emo­tion words and more “we” words in their grat­i­tude let­ters didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have bet­ter men­tal health lat­er. It was only when peo­ple used few­er neg­a­tive emo­tion words in their let­ters that they were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more like­ly to report bet­ter men­tal health. In fact, it was the lack of neg­a­tive emo­tion words—not the abun­dance of pos­i­tive words—that explained the men­tal health gap between the grat­i­tude writ­ing group and the oth­er writ­ing group.

Per­haps this sug­gests that grat­i­tude let­ter writ­ing pro­duces bet­ter men­tal health by shift­ing one’s atten­tion away from tox­ic emo­tions, such as resent­ment and envy. When you write about how grate­ful you are to oth­ers and how much oth­er peo­ple have blessed your life, it might become con­sid­er­ably hard­er for you to rumi­nate on your neg­a­tive experiences.

2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it

We told par­tic­i­pants who were assigned to write grat­i­tude let­ters that they weren’t required to send their let­ters to their intend­ed recip­i­ent. In fact, only 23 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants who wrote grat­i­tude let­ters sent them. But those who didn’t send their let­ters enjoyed the ben­e­fits of expe­ri­enc­ing grat­i­tude nonethe­less. (Because the num­ber of peo­ple who sent their let­ters was so small, it was hard for us to deter­mine whether this group’s men­tal health was bet­ter than those who didn’t send their letter.)

This sug­gests that the men­tal health ben­e­fits of writ­ing grat­i­tude let­ters are not entire­ly depen­dent on actu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing that grat­i­tude to anoth­er person.

So if you’re think­ing of writ­ing a let­ter of grat­i­tude to some­one, but you’re unsure whether you want that per­son to read the let­ter, we encour­age you to write it any­way. You can decide lat­er whether to send it (and we think it’s often a good idea to do so). But the mere act of writ­ing the let­ter can help you appre­ci­ate the peo­ple in your life and shift your focus away from neg­a­tive feel­ings and thoughts.

3. Gratitude’s benefits take time

It’s impor­tant to note that the men­tal health ben­e­fits of grat­i­tude writ­ing in our study did not emerge imme­di­ate­ly, but grad­u­al­ly accrued over time. Although the dif­fer­ent groups in our study did not dif­fer in men­tal health lev­els one week after the end of the writ­ing activ­i­ties, indi­vid­u­als in the grat­i­tude group report­ed bet­ter men­tal health than the oth­ers four weeks after the writ­ing activ­i­ties, and this dif­fer­ence in men­tal health became even larg­er 12 weeks after the writ­ing activities.

These results are encour­ag­ing because many oth­er stud­ies sug­gest that the men­tal health ben­e­fits of pos­i­tive activ­i­ties often decrease rather than increase over time after­ward. We don’t real­ly know why this pos­i­tive snow­ball effect occurred in our study. Per­haps the grat­i­tude let­ter writ­ers dis­cussed what they wrote in their let­ters with their coun­selors or with oth­ers. These con­ver­sa­tions may have rein­forced the psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits derived from the grat­i­tude writ­ing itself.

For now, the bot­tom line is this: If you par­tic­i­pate in a grat­i­tude writ­ing activ­i­ty, don’t be too sur­prised if you don’t feel dra­mat­i­cal­ly bet­ter imme­di­ate­ly after the writ­ing. Be patient and remem­ber that the ben­e­fits of grat­i­tude might take time to kick in.

4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain

About three months after the psy­chother­a­py ses­sions began, we took some of the peo­ple who wrote grat­i­tude let­ters and com­pared them with those who didn’t do any writ­ing. We want­ed to know if their brains were pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion differently.

We used an fMRI scan­ner to mea­sure brain activ­i­ty while peo­ple from each group did a “pay it for­ward” task. In that task, the indi­vid­u­als were reg­u­lar­ly giv­en a small amount of mon­ey by a nice per­son, called the “bene­fac­tor.” This bene­fac­tor only asked that they pass the mon­ey on to some­one if they felt grate­ful. Our par­tic­i­pants then decid­ed how much of the mon­ey, if any, to pass on to a wor­thy cause (and we did in fact donate that mon­ey to a local charity).

We want­ed to dis­tin­guish dona­tions moti­vat­ed by grat­i­tude from dona­tions dri­ven by oth­er moti­va­tions, like feel­ings of guilt or oblig­a­tion. So we asked the par­tic­i­pants to rate how grate­ful they felt toward the bene­fac­tor, and how much they want­ed to help each char­i­ta­ble cause, as well as how guilty they would feel if they didn’t help. We also gave them ques­tion­naires to mea­sure how grate­ful they are in their lives in general.

We found that across the par­tic­i­pants, when peo­ple felt more grate­ful, their brain activ­i­ty was dis­tinct from brain activ­i­ty relat­ed to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specif­i­cal­ly, we found that when peo­ple who are gen­er­al­ly more grate­ful gave more mon­ey to a cause, they showed greater neur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty in the medi­al pre­frontal cor­tex, a brain area asso­ci­at­ed with learn­ing and deci­sion mak­ing. This sug­gests that peo­ple who are more grate­ful are also more atten­tive to how they express gratitude.

Most inter­est­ing­ly, when we com­pared those who wrote the grat­i­tude let­ters with those who didn’t, the grat­i­tude let­ter writ­ers showed greater acti­va­tion in the medi­al pre­frontal cor­tex when they expe­ri­enced grat­i­tude in the fMRI scan­ner. This is strik­ing as this effect was found three months after the let­ter writ­ing began. This indi­cates that sim­ply express­ing grat­i­tude may have last­ing effects on the brain. While not con­clu­sive, this find­ing sug­gests that prac­tic­ing grat­i­tude may help train the brain to be more sen­si­tive to the expe­ri­ence of grat­i­tude down the line, and this could con­tribute to improved men­tal health over time.

Though these are just the first steps in what should be a longer research jour­ney, our research so far not only sug­gests that writ­ing grat­i­tude let­ters may be help­ful for peo­ple seek­ing coun­sel­ing ser­vices but also explains what’s behind gratitude’s psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits. At a time when many men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als are feel­ing crunched, we hope that this research can point them—and their clients—toward an effec­tive and ben­e­fi­cial tool.

Regard­less of whether you’re fac­ing seri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenges, if you have nev­er writ­ten a grat­i­tude let­ter before, we encour­age you to try it. Much of our time and ener­gy is spent pur­su­ing things we cur­rent­ly don’t have. Grat­i­tude revers­es our pri­or­i­ties to help us appre­ci­ate the peo­ple and things we do.

– Joel Wong, Ph.D., is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of coun­sel­ing psy­chol­o­gy at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty, and Joshua Brown, Ph.D., is a pro­fes­sor of psy­cho­log­i­cal and brain sci­ences at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty.  Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

The Study:

Does grat­i­tude writ­ing improve the men­tal health of psy­chother­a­py clients? Evi­dence from a ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al (Jour­nal of Psy­chother­a­py Research)

  • Abstract: Although the past decade has wit­nessed grow­ing research inter­est in pos­i­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­ven­tions (PPIs), their poten­tial as adjunc­tive inter­ven­tions for psy­chother­a­py remains rel­a­tive­ly unex­plored. There­fore, this arti­cle expands the fron­tiers of PPI research by report­ing the first ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al to test a grat­i­tude writ­ing adjunc­tive inter­ven­tion for psy­chother­a­py clients. Par­tic­i­pants were 293 adults seek­ing uni­ver­si­ty-based psy­chother­a­py ser­vices. Par­tic­i­pants were ran­dom­ly assigned to one of three con­di­tions: (a) con­trol (psy­chother­a­py only), (b) a psy­chother­a­py plus expres­sive writ­ing, and © a psy­chother­a­py plus grat­i­tude writ­ing. Par­tic­i­pants in the grat­i­tude con­di­tion wrote let­ters express­ing grat­i­tude to oth­ers, where­as those in the expres­sive writ­ing con­di­tion wrote about their deep­est thoughts and feel­ings about stress­ful expe­ri­ences. About 4 weeks as well as 12 weeks after the con­clu­sion of the writ­ing inter­ven­tion, par­tic­i­pants in the grat­i­tude con­di­tion report­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter men­tal health than those in the expres­sive and con­trol con­di­tions, where­as those in the expres­sive and con­trol con­di­tions did not dif­fer sig­nif­i­cant­ly. More­over, low­er pro­por­tions of neg­a­tive emo­tion words in par­tic­i­pants’ writ­ing medi­at­ed the pos­i­tive effect of con­di­tion (grat­i­tude ver­sus expres­sive writ­ing) on men­tal health. These find­ings are dis­cussed in light of the use of grat­i­tude inter­ven­tions as adjunc­tive inter­ven­tions for psy­chother­a­py clients.

The Study in Context

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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