Editor's Note: We recently updated this previously published post with new insights.
The holidays are just around the corner, and in the past few years, this season of gratitude has taken on a whole new meaning for families and friends. Despite everything going on in the world, we can always find something to be thankful for, and as it turns out, gratitude can even be a powerful tool to address the mental health of your employees.
Gratitude has so many benefits that we're just beginning to understand. It has been proven to impact our emotional, mental, physical, and occupational well-being, and studies show that it can make us feel more optimistic and less aggravated.
Gratitude can inspire, engage, and reinvigorate even the most downtrodden among us. So let’s raise our glasses this holiday season and give a toast to the transformative power of gratitude.
1. Gratitude Alleviates Pain
The mind-body connection has been quantifiably researched more in the past few years than ever before. We now know that how we think directly influences how we experience sensations, including pain.
An updated study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who intentionally practice gratitude experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than people who don't.
Gratitude has also been proven to help people take better care of themselves. They exercise more, eat better, and are more willing to make time for annual health checkups. It may even contribute to improved feelings of wellness which creates motivation to make health a priority.
2. Gratitude Improves Health
While most studies on gratitude and health rely on self-reported results, one group of researchers set out to determine whether the health benefits of gratitude could be measured objectively. They ran a study of heart failure patients in which half of the patients were asked to keep a gratitude journal and half received treatment as usual.
Research showed that biomarkers for heart failure, such as inflammation, were significantly reduced in the group who wrote in gratitude journals. The simple act of documenting and reflecting on what they were grateful for elicited quantifiable shifts in health for heart failure patients.
3. Gratitude Helps People Sleep Better
Adequate sleep is critical for improving mental and physical well-being. And yet, so many of us toss and turn at night regardless of our stress levels during the day.
In a popular study from 2011, two psychologists asked a group of people to make lists of things they were thankful for each night. In just three weeks, participants said they were getting more sleep and feeling more refreshed in the morning, with 40% reporting that they fell asleep faster and longer.
A popular WellRight challenge, Be Grateful, asks participants to list three things they’re grateful for every day for one month. Encourage your employees to try this at work and in their personal lives—they will likely build self-esteem, protect themselves from the negative effects of stress, and sleep better.
4. Gratitude Elicits Healthier Food Choices
Many people view food as more than just a way to nourish themselves—it’s a source of comfort for stress, anger, loneliness, anxiety, or simply boredom.
Emotional eating can be an incredibly difficult pattern to break. For some individuals, eating is impulsive and mindless—if the food is there, they eat it without thinking about whether they’re actually hungry.
However, thinking about the things you’re grateful for has actually been proven to give you a surge in impulse control. Additionally, the positive mental health effects of gratitude can actually stave off the negative feelings that can trigger emotional eating.
5. Gratitude Can Change Your Brain
Mental health experts associate gratitude with a host of psychological benefits. Studies show being thankful can improve relationships, ease depression, excise toxic emotions (such as envy and resentment), and enhance empathy.
Moreover, the positive effects of gratitude are long-lasting. In a study supported by the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, nearly 300 patients seeking mental health therapy were split into three groups. One group was told to write a letter of gratitude to another person once a week for three weeks. Another group was asked to write down their feelings about negative experiences, while the third group wrote nothing.
Corresponding research showed that the group who wrote thank-you notes reported significantly improved mental health in the weeks after completing their writing assignments. And remarkably, when study participants underwent MRIs three months later, doctors noticed “greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex” in the letter-writing group.
“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,” researchers of the study said.
Fostering Gratitude at Work
If we can learn anything from science, it's that gratitude is something we can learn and hone as time goes on. And as we do, our minds and bodies improve as a result.
There are a number of ways to help your employees practice gratitude this holiday season and beyond. Here are some ways you can get started:
- Say “thanks” more often. When people feel appreciated, they tend to give it right back. Managers should make a point to let their hardworking team members know how much they’re valued.
- Bring in speakers on thankfulness. Host workshops on how to write daily gratitude journals, the effects of positive psychology on the brain, or how teams and businesses can benefit from showing appreciation more often.
- Encourage mindfulness. Meditation goes hand-in-hand with gratitude. Encourage your employees to take several moments to check in with themselves throughout the workday or even after they clock out.
A culture of gratitude won’t emerge overnight in your workforce, especially in our current climate. With everything your employees have had to adapt to in the past few years, it can be hard to see all the good in the world. But if you nurture gratitude within your organization, little by little, it will take hold, transforming the health and well-being of your employees, your senior leaders, and you.