How Gratitude Can Improve Your Mental Health
Our theme this month is finding balance, which has a lot to do with our mental health. When we feel good mentally, we can better show up for the people and responsibilities in our lives and deal with the curveballs life throws at us. Gratitude is one tool that can be a major contributor to our mental wellbeing. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, below, we chatted with a neuropsychologist to share the mental health benefits of gratitude, plus easy ways to practice it.
The mental health benefits of practicing gratitude
It balances our thinking. If your mindset tends to lean more to the negative side, gratitude can help bring you back to a more positive headspace. “Practicing gratitude helps us pause, reflect on the moment, and balance our thinking when we are more inclined to consider negative information and ignore or minimize the positive information,” says triple-board certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho, Ph.D.
It makes us feel good, literally. As we express gratitude, Dr. Ho says, our brain releases dopamine, a neurochemical that makes us feel positive emotions.
It cultivates a peaceful feeling. During chaotic times (we’re looking at you, 2020), Dr. Ho says gratitude can help contribute to feelings of wellbeing and peace.
It reduces overwhelm. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Ho shares that gratitude can help increase feelings of control and reduce the sense of overwhelm.
It promotes resilience. “Gratitude gives us the confidence that we can handle the challenges that are coming our way by reflecting on what’s going right in our lives and offering hope during difficult times,” Dr. Ho says.
3 gratitude rituals to incorporate
The benefits of practicing gratitude sound great, but how do you actually implement it into your daily life? Dr. Ho shares some practical activities below.
Morning gratitude: Kick off your day with a positive mindset by saying aloud or writing in a journal one thing you’re grateful for as soon as you wake up. And don’t just express gratitude for the big things like your home, family, job, etc. Be thankful for the little ordinary things, too, like your cozy blanket or the way the sunlight shines into your bedroom in the morning. “There is no judgment about the ‘largeness’ of the gratitude item,” Dr. Ho says. “Just make sure you write something down and that it is genuine to your feelings.”
Gratitude card: This is an excellent gratitude practice if you need a tangible reminder to come back to gratitude throughout the day. To do it, Dr. Ho suggests writing down the one thing you’re grateful for in the morning on a card. Then, “carry the card with you and add to it throughout the day when you feel inspired,” she says. “At the end of the day, give the card to a family member and talk about it, or read it out loud to yourself.” The process of writing it down, keeping it top of mind as you go about your day. and then rereading at night helps make an attitude of gratitude your default way of thinking.
Gratitude letter: The people we love are hands down one of the biggest blessings in our lives. Letting loved ones, friends, or even colleagues know how much they mean to you is another way to elevate your gratitude practice and make someone’s day too. Dr. Ho suggests writing someone a short letter letting them know why you appreciate them. The details make it extra special. Then, if you have the opportunity, read it to them or mail it to them.
How to practice gratitude during difficult times
It’s safe to say 2020 has been a year like no other we’ve experienced in our lifetime. With so much happening around the world, practicing gratitude can be challenging, but that’s even more of a reason to do it. Dr. Ho’s advice is to practice the art of gratitude and make it non-negotiable.
“A gratitude practice is like any other kind of practice; It is a muscle you can train,” Dr. Ho says. “The best ways to make sure gratitude practice happens is to anchor it to something that already happens daily.” For example, you can pair your morning cup of coffee or your nighttime skincare ritual with your gratitude practice. Or, Dr. Ho suggests writing down the one thing you’re grateful for at the top of your to-do list, so you’re reminded of it throughout the day. Whatever way you choose to incorporate gratitude, the important thing is that you do it consistently to reap the full benefits.