Gratitude: How Gratitude Journaling Improves Mental & Physical Health
Most of us know gratitude is an important trait to have, an admirable one as well. But few of us actually keep a gratitude journal. We're hoping to change that. Gratitude fosters a plethora of health, cognitive, and social benefits. From improving sleep to strengthening social connections, gratitude seems to be an undervalued practice. Gratitude-inducing activities such as keeping a gratitude journal or texting a loved one telling them how grateful you are for them are all underutilized tools and exercises to improve mental and physical health.
Gratitude affects a glut of cognitive and emotional processes. From optimism to motivation, gratitude brings out the best of each person. There is research that supports the idea that practicing gratitude leads to greater self-improvement and motivation (Armenta et al., 2020).
One such study looked at the life satisfaction and ambition levels of high school students (1,017 students in total) over 4 weeks. Each week, the students were asked to do a slightly different exercise. These included reading testimonials about appreciation, social support, feeling supported, and humbleness. The other exercises had participants keep a gratitude journal about personal goals, thankfulness, and humbleness. The students were also instructed to dedicate 30 minutes a week to self-improvement in different conditions such as kindness, health, and academics.
The consistent exercise across all four weeks, however, was writing a letter of gratitude. Participants were asked to write a letter to someone who aided them in some capacity. Whether it be academics, health, or a simple act of kindness. Participants were asked to spend 10 minutes a day for all 4 weeks writing these letters in a gratitude journal . At the end of the experiment, researchers were able to determine that students who practiced gratitude felt more inspired to elicit change in their lives, had higher life satisfaction, felt more connected and beholden to their interpersonal relationships (Armenta et al., 2020).
Upholding the idea that gratitude is positively correlated with subjective well-being, is the supporting evidence that gratitude may lessen feelings of depression. (Alkozei et al., 2018). A study conducted by Lambert et al. (2012) corroborates this statement. In this study, 61 participants were assigned to a gratitude intervention condition and 28 participants were assigned to a control condition. Both conditions had participants write daily in an online journal.
The gratitude condition asked participants questions such as, “‘What life experiences are you grateful for?’’ ‘‘What are some things that you normally take for granted that you are grateful for?’’ Participants in the control group were asked to write down in a gratitude journal any insights they learned in their day-to-day lives. Participants were asked to answer a depression questionnaire before and after the interventions. After 4 weeks, participants in the gratitude intervention (mean = 2.5) had fewer symptoms and feelings of depression in comparison to the control condition (mean = 3.0). While practicing gratitude does not cure depression, it does lessen the feelings of depression (Lambert et al., 2012).
When we think of gratitude, we often do not think about its association with our physical health. However, more and more studies are discovering a positive association between gratitude and health (Portocarrero et al., 2020).
In a study conducted by Jackowska et al. (2016), 40 women were asked to write about 3 people or things they were grateful for, every day for 2 weeks. In addition to the gratitude journal, participants’ blood pressure and heart rate were measured. After 2 weeks, the participants in the experimental group had their systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate measured and showed mean reductions of -1.9mmHg, -1.2mmHg, and -0.5 bpm respectfully. (Jackowska et al., 2016). The mere act of keeping a gratitude journal has significant physical health benefits.
A fledgling area of study is how gratitude may foster healthier food choices. The theory being gratitude reduces negative emotions which typically lead us to unhealthier food choices (e.g. eating a container of ice cream after a breakup).
Research conducted by Fritz et al. (2019) shows a positive relationship between the two. The study recruited undergraduate students and high school students and asked them to write and read testaments about thankfulness, humbleness, and intentions. An important point to make is researchers did not specifically tell participants to eat healthier, although participants were asked to fill out a diet questionnaire at different time intervals. The study initially lasted 2 weeks, however, researchers increased the duration to 4 weeks to better observe the effects over a longer period.
At the end of the study, the high school participants demonstrated positive changes. They reported having a more positive mood and making healthier food choices (mean improvement being 0.28). Conversely, the undergraduate participants did not make any improvements in their food choices. The study points out several potential answers as to why, such as embarrassment or guilt from the emotional experience of the gratitude exercises. In conclusion, gratitude may indirectly improve dietary choices by decreasing negative emotions.
Especially during the holiday season, we are encouraged to express our gratitude to those around us. While this advice may have become hackneyed over time, gratitude is an important aspect of fostering stronger social support and connections. Perhaps because it is overused, we may not realize the impacts of showing our gratitude to others. A study conducted by Kumar & Epley (2018) corroborates this idea.
The researchers asked the participants to write letters of gratitude to people they felt indebted to. After they had written and sent their letters, the participants reported feeling elevated feelings of happiness and positivity. However, when asked about how the recipients would feel upon receiving the letters, the participants underestimated how positive the responses would be. Additionally, many of the letter writers were concerned that feelings of surprise or awkwardness would arise. While our feelings of discomfort or our misjudgments might make us hesitant to partake in these prosocial behaviors, these actions only further improve our well-being and social connections. (Kumar & Epley, 2018).
Gratitude not only affects our relationships with friends and family but can also help promote a more positive and creative work environment (Pillay et al., 2020). In a study designed to measure the effects of gratitude on team creativity, participants were randomly assigned to either a control group or an experimental group. Participants in the experimental group were asked to write why they were thankful for a specific team member, while participants in the control group were simply asked to write down their daily routine.
Both groups had 5 minutes of writing before they were asked to come up with ideas to improve college education as a team. The group discussions were taped and research assistants, who did not know the exact details of the experiment, were asked to rate the creativity of the ideas. The experimental group showed a higher level of creativity, perhaps due to team members discussing their ideas in detail in comparison to the control group. This study encouraged further research on gratitude in the workplace, however, this study emphasizes that practicing gratitude for a mere 5 minutes can help create a more diverse and constructive workplace (Pillay et al., 2020).
Gratitude is a key player in enhancing happiness, well-being, health, and overall life satisfaction. However, it can be difficult to maintain an attitude of gratitude, especially when daily frustrations and conflicts arise. That's where the self-therapy app LIFE Intelligence comes in. LIFE digitizes scientific interventions such as the ones you’ve read about here, acting like a little mobile gratitude journal.
For example, if you’re feeling frustrated, you can select the gratitude exercise, and the app will walk you through the difference between feeling proud about what you have, vs. gratitude, which is feeling thankful for something undeserved. It prompts you to track and journal about gratitude and send notes of gratitude to others.
The best part is that gratitude and gratitude journaling is only a small fraction of the personal and professional development topics LIFE Intelligence covers. With 9 Missions (topics) ranging from conflict resolution to dealing with anxiety, it holistically covers your well-being, career, and relationships. Whether for daily reflection or an occasional reminder, practicing gratitude is made easy with LIFE Intelligence.
Alkozei, A., Smith, R., & Killgore, W. D. S. (2018). Gratitude and subjective wellbeing: A proposal of two causal frameworks. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 19(5), 1519–1542.
Armenta, C. N., Fritz, M. M., Walsh, L. C., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2020). Satisfied yet striving: Gratitude fosters life satisfaction and improvement motivation in youth emotion.
Fritz, M. M., Armenta, C. N., Walsh, L. C., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2019). Gratitude facilitates healthy eating behavior in adolescents and young adults. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 81, 4–14.
Jackowska, M., Brown, J., Ronaldson, A., & Steptoe, A. (2016). The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. Journal of Health Psychology, 21(10), 2207–2217.
Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2018). Undervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1423–1435.
Lambert, N., Fincham, F., & Stillman, T. (2012). Gratitude and depressive symptoms: The role of positive reframing and positive emotion26(4), 615–633.
Pillay, N., Park, G., Kim, Y. K., & Lee, S. (2020). Thanks for your ideas: Gratitude and team creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 156, 69–81.
Portocarrero, F. F., Gonzalez, K., & Ekema-Agbaw, M. (2020). A meta-analytic review of the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 164.