It is more than just a Hallmark cliché; the research tells us that there may be real healing power in the feeling of gratitude and social connectivity. Feeling grateful for the positive things in our lives – nature, serendipity, family, friends, and other loved ones – can improve our mental health, keep us calm, help us tremendously in the battle against stress, and provide a buffer against feelings of depression and anxiety.
But how? And could gratitude serve a role as a psychotherapeutic tool in the treatment of mental health issues? Let’s take a closer look at the power of feeling grateful.
Gratitude: What Is It?
Gratitude is a positive emotion. It is a genuine appreciation for the way things are. It is not anticipatory, but reflective. Gratitude is the feeling of being content with the present moment. Psychologically speaking, gratitude means recognizing something positive, and attributing it to something outside of your control – whether nature, or an individual, or a group, or even a divine force.
Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic tool falls under the umbrella of positive psychology. Positive psychology is a younger branch of psychological inquiry and study that emphasizes building upon existing positive emotions to foster happiness and a sense of wellbeing, in contrast to what was perceived, at the time, as an excessive focus on correcting negative thought and dwelling on maladaptive behavior. To that end, the psychological effects of actively practicing gratitude have only been studied for about two decades.
By therapizing optimism, mental health professionals aim to foster gratitude within the framework of existing talk therapy sessions – such as cognitive behavioral therapy – to build mental resilience, improve mood, and reduce depression. Often to great effect.
Evidence-Based Support for Gratitude and Connectiveness
Talk therapy consists of frameworks and protocols that have been developed over decades to address thinking patterns and behavioral issues that are common in people with a certain mental health problem.
For example, cognitive behavioral therapy at Amend Treatment helps people utilize the feedback loop that exists between thought and action to help reinforce positive actions through positive thoughts, and vice versa – while isolating and taking power away from negative thoughts, and negative actions.
This means that, in addition to complementary lifestyle changes and medication to help manage mood, many cases of mental illness can be treated by effectively thinking differently.
Gratitude can play a big role in helping us overcome consistently upsetting and negative thoughts by exclusively focusing on what is good right now.
When we do this, research tells us that a few things happen. First, we become a little happier. Second, we feel engaged in our environment, and grateful for the things that we perceive as positive in the world around us. Third, we feel encouraged to give back to the world and the people around us, and to exhibit more prosocial behavior. We also know that being prosocial generally correlates with feeling happier, more interconnected, less isolated or lonely, and less depressed.
Gratitude fosters not just a more positive attitude towards life, but towards the people around you, and towards the world. Gratitude and prosocial thinking are excellent examples of undervalued and understudied factors in human wellbeing – and elements we can all stand to focus on a little bit more.
Strategies for Cultivating Gratitude
There are many ways to practice gratitude. In a clinical setting, the most popular is the gratitude list, which involves listing three to five things to feel grateful about every day. It is a quick activity that immediately improves a person’s mood, reduces their stress, and can mediate depression symptoms.
In the long-term, it helps to cultivate lasting feelings of gratitude and teaches us to think about what’s been good in our lives recently. But there are many other ways to practice gratitude outside of list-making, such as:
A long-form gratitude list; rather than itemizing your thoughts, take the time to walk through the day and talk about the things that made you happy, and reflect on them.
Paying it forward, by doing something good for someone else, whether it’s a small kindness or a thoughtful activity, or something more elaborate. This could include volunteering. We also know from years of research that doing something for someone else elicits a special kind of positive emotion.
Writing Thank-You Notes
Personalized thank-you notes or messages to people who have made a positive impact in your life don’t just make someone else’s day, but they can also make you feel better. In fact, people who were asked to create thank-you messages for others would often overestimate how awkward the perceived messages would be, and underestimate how good it feels to write and send them!
Showing gratitude for nature is another valuable way to feel grateful for the good things around us. Whether as part of a nature walk or just in the form of a few minutes spent idly enjoying your view from the attic window, intersecting gratitude with nature may net special mental health benefits.
Take the time to be grateful for the people and the things that have helped you land where you are – and use that gratitude to segue into positive affirmations, such as recognizing your recent achievements, thinking positively on your resilience in the face of a challenge, or remembering when you managed to overcome a problem or move past a hardship.
Gratitude fosters a more positive outlook, which we can use to reframe upcoming challenges to become opportunities for growth, rather than a source of unending anxiety.
Taking a Digital Detox
Certain things can make it harder to feel grateful. An excessive bombardment of negative news and impulses, for example, could impede with your goal of finding something to be grateful for in each day. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to take a break from social media and digitally detox to emphasize your mental health.
Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic tool not being completely explored until just a few years ago is nothing new. We’re always finding out how new approaches and different factors might influence our physical and mental wellbeing. It’s easy to get caught up on a single detail or lose the forest for the trees. However, the reality is that our wellbeing is dependent on countless factors.
We at Amend Treatment understand that a holistic and multimodal approach to cultivating mental wellbeing is crucial. Our residential and aftercare programs rely on evidence-based therapeutic methods, which include somatic experiencing, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, gratitude practice, and much more.