Most of us are on a perpetual quest to find happiness. It's easy to see how successfully fulfilling a goal or acquiring something new can bring pleasure. But happiness is fleeting. Soon the “new” thing becomes old, and life will inevitably lead to other feelings, such as fear, anger, and sadness. A lasting and more secure route to happiness and contentedness is to practice gratitude.
How gratitude works
Learning to practice gratitude doesn’t mean focusing on the positive and ignoring negative emotions or challenging situations. Instead, gratitude is a tool that helps you recognize the good things in your life to feel happier and more content with what you already have – even when you’re stressed or struggling.
Ironically, constantly seeking happiness can often make you unhappy. Chasing after happiness focuses your attention on what you don’t have. The human brain tends to struggle with unfulfilled wants and desires. Frustration at this lack of fulfillment can lead you away from happiness. Although fulfilling a desire can alleviate this frustration, the pleasure it brings is often temporary. That’s because once a desire is met, the goal posts move, and frustration once again sets in while you chase the next “thing” that will make you happy.1
Being grateful, however, takes your focus off unfulfilled desires and helps you cultivate a sense of inner contentment and appreciation for what you already have. One study found that individuals who strive to own and acquire more things are less happy – likely due to the inherent focus on what they don’t have. Whereas those who are less focused on acquiring things tend to be more grateful and happier with what they already have.1
Physically, research is finding links between expressing gratitude and the brain structures associated with social bonding, reward, and stress relief.2,3 A 2017 study using functional magnetic resonance imaging examined the effects of practicing gratitude mediations on the brain. Researchers observed that the amygdala, a region of the brain known for its role in processing emotions, was activated when expressing gratitude. This activity seemed to strengthen the participants’ ability to regulate emotions (for example, to focus on specific emotions or rethink/reframe a situation in a more positive light).3
Of course, you’ll still work to fulfill your desires – you're human, after all – but gratitude can help you be content and happy in the present moment.
Gratitude is good for your mind and body
When you’re disappointed, stressed, or struggling, it’s hard to notice the positive things in life. But when you make gratitude a regular habit, it helps you recognize good things despite the bad things that might be happening. Gratitude can shift your attention and keep you from getting mired in negative thoughts by minimizing unhelpful ruminating.
Research shows that individuals who tend to feel grateful have fewer depressive symptoms over time.4,5 In addition, actively practicing gratitude has been shown to reduce worry and improve symptoms of depression.6,7 Although not a replacement for medication or therapy, practicing gratitude can be an effective tool for improving mental well-being.
In addition to bolstering your emotional health, a daily gratitude practice might also positively affect the body. Research indicates that gratitude is linked to fewer signs of heart disease and might improve your quality of sleep.6,8,9
How to start a gratitude habit
A gratitude habit begins by deliberately noticing the good or enjoyable times in your life. Start by being grateful for simple things: Your dinner. A beautiful sunset. The laughter of a child. Your dog's wagging tail. A warm shower.
Finding minor sources of joy can keep you from dwelling on what you don’t have and reorient your mental compass toward a focus on the positive things already in front of you.
Writing a list of the things you’re grateful for is an effective way to reap the benefits of being grateful. Making a list in a gratitude journal (either a paper or digital version) creates a resource of positive feelings you can draw on the next time you’re feeling down or are struggling. Research indicates that just two or three weeks of writing in a gratitude journal can improve your mood, optimistic outlook, and life satisfaction.6,8,10
One classic study asked 65 adults with neuromuscular disease to write down the things they were grateful for during a 21-day period or to fill out an assessment and log their mood, well-being, and health (the control group). Results showed that the gratitude participants reported more daily positive moods and a more positive outlook on life than the control participants. The gratitude group also indicated the quality and amount of their sleep improved during the study.6
Starting a new habit and making it stick can be challenging. It helps to pair the new habit with an already existing behavior. For example, express a few things you’re grateful for while you’re eating dinner or jot them down when you get in bed. Experiment with options and try one at a time for two or three weeks, then check in and see how you’re feeling. Keep in mind that expressing gratitude isn’t a magic solution and it doesn’t work for everyone. But being consciously grateful does give you a pathway toward more positivity and contentment.
Tsang JA, Carpenter TP, Roberts JA, et al. Why are materialists less happy? The role of gratitude and need satisfaction in the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction. Pers Individ Dif 2014; 64:62-66.
Fox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H, Damasio A. Neural correlates of gratitude. Front Psychol 2015;6:1491.
Kyeong S, Kim J, Kim DJ, et al. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Sci Rep 2017;7(1):5058.
Van Dusen JP, Tiamiyu MF, Kashdan TB, Elhai JD. Gratitude, depression, and PTSD: Assessment of structural relationships. Psychiatry Res 2015;230(3):867-870.
Wood AM, Froh JJ, Geraghty AW. Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Clin Psychol Rev 2010;30(7):890-905.
Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol 2003;84(2):377-389.
Lambert NM, Fincham FD, Stillman TF. Gratitude and depressive symptoms: the role of positive reframing and positive emotion. Cogn Emot 2012;26(4):615-633.
Redwine LS, Henry BL, Pung MA, et al. Pilot randomized study of a gratitude journaling intervention on heart rate variability and inflammatory biomarkers in patients with stage B heart failure. Psychosom Med 2016;78(6):667-676.
Ginty AT, Tyra AT, Young DA, et al. State gratitude is associated with lower cardiovascular responses to acute psychological stress: A replication and extension. Int J Psychophysiol 2020 Dec;158:238-247.
Kini P, Wong J, McInnis S, et al. The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. Neuroimage 2016;128:1-10.