Health Benefits of Gratitude (& Why We Have to Work at It)

Katie Wells Avatar

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This post contains affiliate links.

Read my affiliate policy.

Wellness Mama » Blog » Mindset » Health Benefits of Gratitude (& Why We Have to Work at It)

 Once a year we set aside a day as a nation to reflect on all of the reasons we have to be grateful (yes, it’s not just about turkey and stuffing!). Many of us are well aware of the spiritual and mental benefits of cultivating gratitude in our lives, but it turns out the benefits of gratitude can even extend to physical health.

Truthfully, it’s not always easy to look past our problems and express gratitude. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult! So is it worth the extra effort? How do we cultivate the habit of gratitude in daily life, even when it’s hard?

Why Is It So Hard to Be Grateful?

It sounds simple but it turns out there are biological reasons gratitude doesn’t come so easily.

If you’re reading this on a phone or laptop, your living conditions are better than the majority of the world. You probably got to eat today, likely even food you chose and enjoyed, and you probably have adequate clothing. Yet it’s easy to dwell on the financial problems, the one negative comment on a blog post (*ahem*), or the one thing we wish we could fix about our bodies.

This makes sense from a biological standpoint but makes gratitude difficult. We’re wired to pay attention to things that could be potentially negative or harmful as a survival instinct, but in a world of constant input from the internet and social media, this instinct can backfire.

The Science Behind Positive Psychology

Several studies have shown there may be a genetic component to our positive emotions (or lack thereof). The COMT gene helps us recycle dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter that helps with a positive mood. Study participants with one version of the COMT gene reported higher levels of gratitude, while those with a different version of the gene had less feelings of gratitude.

Scientists have identified several different gene variations that may play a role in how we feel gratitude and our mental well-being. They’ve also discovered that grateful people have more brain activity in certain areas. On the other side, toxic emotions like envy, narcissism, and materialism inhibited people from feeling grateful.

The Physical Health Benefits of Gratitude

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “If only I had ___ I’d be happy.” Or “if only I didn’t have to deal with ___ I’d be happy,” but this is a vicious cycle…

Psychologist Shawn Anchor explains in this great TED talk that gratitude and happiness are the first steps, not the end result. By choosing to be grateful and happy (whether we feel that way at the time or not), we’re literally choosing better physical health and mental health.

How does this work? Brain studies show grateful feelings increase our sense of well-being and relaxation. Dr. Madiha Saeed, MD, explains:

“Heartfelt” emotions—like gratitude, love, and caring—produce sine waves or coherent waves radiating to every cell of the body, all determined through technology that measures changes in heart rhythm variation and measurements of coherence. Research shows that with “depleted” emotions—like frustration, anger, anxiety, and insecurity—the heart-rhythm pattern becomes more erratic and the brain recognizes this as stress. This in turn creates a desynchronized state, raising the risk of developing heart disease and increased blood pressure, weakening the immune system, impairing cognitive function, and blocking our ability to think clearly.”

Over time, this more relaxed state can lead to improved hormone balance and immune function and even decreased rates of disease. The practice of gratitude has positive effects on our nervous system, romantic relationships, self-esteem, and even sleep quality.

The American Psychological Association backs this up. They found that higher gratitude scores in subjects related to better mood, better sleep, more positive health-promoting habits, less inflammation, and improved heart health, including lower blood pressure.

How Gratitude Helps

Even when a problem does come along, being grateful can still help. It’s no secret that stress has a negative impact on health, but research is finding that an “attitude of gratitude” can be a successful antidote to even serious external stressors. In one study, cancer patients who were optimistic about their symptoms and outcomes were less likely to experience thickening arteries than those who had negative emotions.

We all go through tough times at some point, but being grateful through adversity has positive benefits. Researchers at the University of Connecticut looked at people who had already had a heart attack. Those who were able to see the benefit and be thankful for the experience (even if they didn’t like it) were less likely to have another heart attack.

Personally, I discovered that once I learned how to grow from and even be thankful for what I learned as a result of trauma it helped my healing process.

The best news is, that being grateful is absolutely free and always available to us! We just have to make daily gratitude a habit.

An Attitude of Gratitude: Making It Stick

Thankfully, cultivating a grateful attitude is possible, and it can be one of the easiest (and cheapest) changes in our healthcare plan! A few simple changes can help make gratitude a habit:

A Daily List

Every day I try to make a list of a few things that I’m especially grateful for that day. Whether it’s little things like my garden or the dishwasher to big things like my children and loved ones. I’ve found this helps to keep the focus on the many blessings in my life.

When I do it first thing in the morning, it sets the tone for the day and helps me stay positive and cheerful. I’ll also ask my kids at the end of the day what 3 things they were grateful for.

Letter of Gratitude

Once in a while, I try to write letters to friends and family members thanking them for their influence in my life and detailing the reasons I’m grateful for them. Science shows that even sending thank you cards for various reasons has a positive effect on our mood and the recipient’s mood.

Interestingly, one study showed that when kids wrote thank you cards to family members it did not increase their feelings of gratitude. So there may be a maturity component involved. Regardless, I always encouraged my kids to write thank you notes since it’s a good habit to thank others. When kids learn to express gratitude they report less envy and depression.

Acts of Kindness

Doing a small, unnoticed good deed each day can help boost our natural tendency to be grateful and look for the good in any situation. This could be volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating to a homeless shelter, or making a meal for someone going through a difficult time.

It can even be as simple as paying someone a sincere compliment on how nice their hair looks that day. You never know what small kindness can really make their day!

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Like an expanded version of the first suggestion, this is a place to regularly collect your thoughts. Review what went well in the day or how others blessed you that day. This would be a great time of year to start a family gratitude habit as well.

I’ve heard great things about this journal for kids and hope to do it in our family soon. One of the best ways I’ve found to communicate with my daughters is through journaling. The process helps them open up more about their experiences and feelings.

Post Reminders

There are thousands of printables that focus on gratitude. Print some out and put them up around the house, or make your own with the kids! Sometimes we just need the visual reminder to retrain our thoughts and keep us reflecting on the positive.

Put the notes where you can easily see them, like on the fridge or the bathroom mirror.

Want some more ideas to cultivate gratitude? Our family loves this Gratitude Documentary!

Counting My Blessings

As Martha Washington said:

“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”

So, if you’re grateful for anything today, please share it below in the comments! Five things I’m very grateful for today are:

  • My family
  • My home
  • A good night’s sleep
  • Access to healthy food
  • You! I feel so blessed to get to “meet” all of the wonderful people and be part of this community. I’ve learned so much from all of you and am so encouraged that together we’re creating a more positive future for our kids.

This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board-certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

What are you grateful for today? Share below!

  1. Kyeong, S., et al. (2017). Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Scientific reports, 7(1), 5058.
  2. Kini, P., et al. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. NeuroImage, 128, 1–10.
  3. O’Connell, B. H., & Killeen-Byrt, M. (2018). Psychosocial health mediates the gratitude-physical health link. Psychology, health & medicine, 23(9), 1145–1150.
  4. Redwine, L. S., et al. (2016). Pilot Randomized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosomatic medicine, 78(6), 667–676.
  5. Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, August 14). Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier.
  6. Allen, S. (2018). Why Is Gratitude So Hard for Some People? Greater Good Magazine Berkeley.
  7. Campbell, B. (N.D.) Counting Your Blessings: How Gratitude Improves Your Health. ME/CFS & Fibromyalgia Self-Help.
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


63 responses to “Health Benefits of Gratitude (& Why We Have to Work at It)”

  1. Jessica Clements Avatar
    Jessica Clements

    Hello, Thank you for sharing this post!

    I am grateful for
    Having a roof over my head
    For getting a good nights rest
    For waking up in a positive mood today
    And for God
    God bless you and have a wonderful day…

  2. Kenya Tidwell Avatar
    Kenya Tidwell

    -I’m grateful to have GOD in my life.
    -I’m grateful for my family
    -I’m grateful for our health
    -Grateful for our home
    -I’m grateful we have food to eat.

  3. Bonnie Avatar

    I am thankful for a new day, for a comfortable home, for an indoor bathroom and forced air furnace (tells my age).
    My husband and I are just getting over COVID. I am so grateful for my simple warm throw that comforts me every day, for caring friends who have brought us food and offers of help.
    I am thankful I can go to public worship today. It has been many weeks of being home.
    I am thankful for a wonderful family. So, so blessed, but we have our problems too.

  4. Cheryl Barker Avatar
    Cheryl Barker

    Today and always, I am grateful for –
    My recovery
    My health and being able to move my body
    My higher power
    Having a safe place to live
    The health of my children
    My children
    Financial serenity
    Healthy food that i can afford
    My outlook on life is much improved when i can focus on the positive, good things in my life 🙂

  5. Deborah F Hopper Avatar
    Deborah F Hopper

    I am grateful too God who is first in my life, I am grateful for my wonderful adult sons, I am grateful for my life partner who always has my back, I am grateful for good wholesome food, I am great for fresh clean water, I am grateful for Katie who is an inspiration.

  6. Jessica Avatar

    I love this post! It’s something I practice with my kids all the time. We read the book “Thankful Frankie” and list things we are grateful for every night. It’s so beautiful!

  7. Sally Lynch Avatar
    Sally Lynch

    Grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time with my grandghildren. I’m grateful that my children live close enough to visit weekly.

  8. Lorri Andrews Avatar
    Lorri Andrews

    Good Afternoon Katie
    I am grateful for your website. It proves I am not the only one and I take comfort in knowing you are out there trying to help us be our better selves. I am grateful I am Canadian and have access to common luxuries most of the world doesn’t. I am grateful that I have the ability to share what little I have with those who need it more than me. I am grateful that I can share my time to help the local charities and community events when they need it. I thank God every day for something, and usually thank him many times a day for all the above and for helping my birds at my bird feeder, the blessing that my 2 cats and 1 dog are in good health too, that my horses have access to organic free range grass and even hearing that sparrow sing a little song just for me. Too many things to mention them all and I am grateful for it all.

  9. Rebecca Cobb Avatar
    Rebecca Cobb

    Thankful for you Katie! That your health problems put you on this journey…that God blessed you with an inquiring mind and brave soul. And in turn, we the readers, are blessed by your knowledge and love.

  10. Ellen Avatar

    Nice and Informative Article. I just read 1 more article you can it some of important related to health and beauty here also. Thanks!

  11. Wendy Northrup Avatar
    Wendy Northrup

    Grateful for Wellness Mama!! I always feel like you are a friend just having a chat on your posts while being super informative. Love them, and thank you for all you do for us!

  12. Deborah Avatar

    I am grateful for you Wellness Mama. Thank you for all you do! I marvel at all the information, the recipes, all you do for me, all of us, who read your blogs. THANKYOU and I thank the Lord for you, praying He will bless you–knowing He can bless you the best.
    Words are weak, I wish I could do more, but for now I want to say thank you for all your time, research, recipes, experience, and energy, all out there free for us. You have blessed my life so much, may you and yours be blessed abundantly, today and always.

  13. Kathleen Avatar

    I am so grateful for my health & mother nature! I am blessed everyday to be surrounded by so many incredible people. & Thank YOU for creating this wonderful resource that inspires health & wellness and encourages people to lead a happy, fulfilling life!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *