Counting your blessings improves mental health
From research by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, Indiana University
Recent evidence suggests if mental health professionals add the practice of gratitude to psychological counselling, it shows great benefits. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.
Researchers involved nearly 300 adults in a study. They were mostly college students who were seeking mental health counselling at a university. The participants were recruited just before they began their first session of counselling, and, on average, they reported clinically low levels of mental health at the time - mostly issues related to depression and anxiety.
They randomly assigned participants into three groups. Although all three groups received counselling 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 they find? Compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counselling, 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 counselling carries greater benefits than counselling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.
And that’s not all. they found indications of how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies. While not definitive, here are four insights from the research suggesting what might be behind gratitude’s psychological benefits.
1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions
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. It was only when people used fewer negative emotion words in their letters that they were significantly more likely to report better mental health.
This suggests that gratitude letter writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy.
2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it
Participants who were assigned to write gratitude letters were not required to send their letters to their intended recipient. In fact, only 23% did, but those who didn’t send their letters enjoyed the benefits of experiencing gratitude nonetheless.
The mere act of writing the letter can help a person appreciate the people in their life and shift their 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 the study did not emerge immediately, but gradually accrued over time. Although the different groups in the 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.
Don’t be too surprised if a person does not 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
They found that across the participants, when people felt more grateful, their brain activity as measured by a scan was distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specifically, they found that when people who are generally more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater sensitivity in the 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.
When they compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the brain area associated with learning and decision making when they experienced gratitude. 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.
If you have never written a gratitude letter before, the researchers 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. One can only reflect on the effect of gratitude to God...
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From research by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, India, 12/07/2017