You’ve heard your grandma say it a thousand times: Count your blessings. The adage is annoyingly prevalent during the holiday season, but—as it turns out—granny was onto something. Burgeoning research shows that gratitude has tangible, positive effects on mental and physical health, including better sleep, reduced depression, and improved relationships.
Let’s back up a little—what is gratitude, anyways?
Robert Emmons (one of the leading scientific experts on this topic) defines gratitude as a “sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”
If you’re feeling a little more Grinch than Cindy Lou, here are four science-backed reasons to start cultivating gratitude this Thanksgiving—and year-round, too:
1. Sweeter Sleep
After a long, stressful day, your head hits the pillow—and a compilation of your most embarrassing, cringe-worthy memories starts to play. Sound familiar?
If you’re nodding your head “yes,” you might want to stop counting sheep and start counting blessings instead. According to a 2009 study, cultivating gratitude may help you doze off faster, sleep longer, and wake up feeling more refreshed.
The study linked gratitude to having more positive thoughts (and fewer negative ones) at bedtime.
It seems obvious, but cultivating positive thoughts helps push pessimism and worry—the enemies of sleep—out of your mind. Rather than obsessing over a friend who forgot to text you back, you’re remembering the coworker who went out of their way to check in with you. Instead of stressing over an awkward social interaction, you’re thinking about that presentation you nailed at work.
Better than a lullaby, right?
2. improved relationships
Turns out, gratitude is for lovers.
According to research from the Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, expressing gratefulness toward your partner can strengthen your bond, improve feelings of harmony, and boost overall satisfaction with your relationship.
Couples who intentionally expressed gratitude for their significant other not only felt more positively towards them, but were more comfortable addressing concerns about their relationship, too.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Sara Algoe, says, “Feelings of gratitude and generosity are helpful in solidifying our relationships with people we care about.”
Want to put gratefulness to practice in your relationship? Here’s an easy tip: Find something you genuinely appreciate about your partner give them an authentic compliment.
3. Boosted physical health
The benefits of thankfulness go beyond the psychological—cultivating gratitude can improve your physical health as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, giving thanks on a routine basis can motivate you to meet your diet and exercise goals—and cut down on unhealthy habits such as cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse.
According to Robert Emmons’ 2003 study, participants who kept a daily gratitude journal exercised more, had more energy and reported fewer aches and pains.
Emmons also found gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression, which brings us to our next point…
4. Decreased depression levels
While research on gratitude is still in a fledgling state, many psychologists are exploring the relationship between thankfulness, mental health, and depression.
A recent study in Current Psychology examined the link between gratitude and depression in university students in China. The discovery? Gratitude may “counteract the symptoms of depression by enhancing a state of peace of mind and reducing ruminative thinking.” (Rumination is repetitively going over a negative thought or a situation without moving into problem-solving.)
Anyone who’s struggled with depression knows how awful those persistent, cycling thoughts can be—so the notion that gratitude could help alleviate them is promising, indeed.
gratitude is not a cure-all
We want to make one thing clear: there’s no evidence that gratitude can cure serious illnesses or depression. It’s not a panacea—and it’s not for everybody, either.
What cultivating gratitude can do is help us focus on the positive things in our lives, which can help boost our mood more than we ever imagined.
Ready to start practicing gratitude year-round?
Get started with the tried-and-true “three good things” exercise. Every night, write down three good things that happened during the day.