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

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 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!

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. Silker Avatar

    I have a feeling that making gratitude lists is a trend, but it is a good one. Sometimes I go to a darker place in myself, but when I geel good, I am grateful for.. everything! Even the rain, waking up too early… Life is something wonderful 🙂 Being grateful does make you feel blessed, happy and you take more care for yourself. Thank you for sharing this post!

  2. Vince Avatar

    Gratitude always sounds like a platitude. It seems like something that’s nice to do in theory but will have little impact in practice.

    Yet, I confess that I’ve noticed a difference in focusing on gratitude. The process makes it easier to see the positive in things and to assign less value to the negative.

  3. Bonnie Avatar

    I’m grateful that even at 68 I’m still able to learn new things and that those things are helping me to heal from diabetes.

  4. Theresa Strickland Avatar
    Theresa Strickland

    Five things I’m grateful for today.
    1. Waking up this morning
    2. Movement in my body
    3. My family
    4. Friends
    5.A functioning mind

  5. Jerri P. Avatar

    I was going to list all of the things I’m grateful for today – including your recipe for tooth powder and finding your fascinating blog. Then I read the ‘comment policy’. Wow! I don’t know if you mean to put genuine people off but it does seem a tad controlling. Not use a nickname – only your ‘real’ name? I don’t happen to like my ‘real’ name and am always known by a nickname. As for my email address – it probably does sound a bit odd and could be construed as spammy, so my comment would doubtless be exterminated.
    So – this is no longer a comment to be posted, just a comment on your rather off-putting policy. Such a shame. Won’t be back, but then I doubt you’ll mind.

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      Hi Jerri,

      I’m sorry you feel that way. The comment policy is in place because of the amount of spam that was getting through and because I want the comments and interaction to be authentic. If someone doesn’t use a real email address then it’s very easy for them to start trolling. If they don’t use a real name, it’s much harder to have a conversation. Many people were only leaving comments so they could like back to their own site and try to selling something, without contributing to the post or conversation in a meaningful way whatsoever.

      I agree that it is unfortunate that I even need to have a comment policy, but because of more than a few bad apples online, it’s necessitated. Thanks for reading!

  6. Dorothy Avatar

    I am grateful for many different things.

    I’m grateful that me and my husband have our good health.
    I’m grateful we have running water, and can take a shower.
    I’m grateful we have heat, and hot water for hot showers.
    I’m grateful for air conditioning.
    I’m grateful that I found this blog.
    I’m grateful that me and my family have a roof over our heads, food and water, and protection from the elements.
    I’m grateful that I can eat healthy food.
    I’m grateful that I have a computer, and access to information.
    I’m grateful for online shopping sites like E-bay and Amazon.
    I’m grateful that I am able to buy e-books, and that I am able to read.
    I’m grateful for whatever education I was able to obtain in my lifetime.
    I’m grateful for Jesus dying on the cross for my sins to offer me eternal life.
    I’m grateful for my faith in Jesus.
    I’m grateful that I have been born into the Catholic Church and known Jesus my whole life.
    I’m grateful that I recently learned to read the bible.
    I’m grateful for a warm winter coat, hat, scarf, boots, and gloves.
    I’m grateful for so many things if I listed them all I would be here forever.
    Most of all, I am grateful that I have learned the power of gratitude, and able to reap its health benefits.

  7. Sarah Avatar

    1.I am grateful for life
    2.I am grateful for my mom and brothers
    3.I am grateful for the time I spent with my dad
    4.I am grateful for all of my family and my friends
    5.i am grateful for my job

  8. Nichole Avatar

    I am so grateful for:

    Being alive, my beautiful children, a happy marriage, being safe, having a home, having transportation, being able to access information to help my children, accepting myself, my families health, Angels put in place on earth to be a blessing to my family, life’s lessons.

  9. Sara Avatar

    Unfortunately I had a hard time reading this. I lost my beloved husband on 10/28/15. He was only 52. We were dealing with some cancer issues. He had beat it for 6 years. We were dealing with main stream docs and an integrative doctor. The integrative doc was the best ever! She was caring, kind, knowledgeable, etc. The main stream docs were so rude and terrible to work with. It was just a mess. Either way, he died from an infection, not cancer, that could have been taken care of but the main stream wouldn’t do anything. Just a horrible time and we are now facing the holidays without him. I have nothing to be thankful for right now. This will be a very difficult holiday season. Mine and my kids lives have been ripped to shreds. I would like to tell everyone to give your loved ones an extra hug, kiss and let them know how much you love them. Life is so short and you don’t know when it will be your last hug and kiss.

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      Sara, I’m so sorry for your loss, that is devastating. Your story is a great reminder to always be grateful for what we have, as you never know when it could be taken away. You and your family will be in my prayers during the upcoming Holiday season.

  10. Angela Murray Avatar
    Angela Murray

    Gotta add more:
    That our kids are doing so well, with good jobs, great spouses, and are wonderful parents! And that I have wonderful parents! My mom is my best friend!
    And for a wonderful husband who has put up with a lot from me over 25 years but still loves me, and works hard so we can have all that we need, including healthy food, and has given me the opportunity to babysit grandkids!
    And that, as someone who is bipolar and always hated myself, that in 2012 at age 50, I finally realized that God loves me and I am really not so bad, and I was baptized. Thanks be to God!

  11. Angela Murray Avatar
    Angela Murray

    I am grateful for family, especially that all 7 of our grandchildren are healthy!

  12. Lili Avatar

    I am grateful for:
    1. My family
    2. God’s love
    3. Good health
    4. Roof over our heads
    5. My job

  13. Audrina Avatar

    You should check out the five minute journal. Its a similar idea but a little bit more in depth.

  14. Kavita Avatar

    There are many things I am grateful for that I cannot even begin to list:
    My parents and their unending support and enthusiasm for life even at 80.
    My family that is always around to pick me up.
    My friends who make it all look so worthwhile.
    My faith in GOD that keeps me happy.
    A warm bed to sleep in and food on the table

  15. Alana Avatar

    Perfect timing to stumble upon this post! I was feeling pretty ungrateful, so good to be reminded before I hit the hay to relax and rejig my thoughts 🙂
    1. My husband and beautiful kids
    2. Tonight’s dinner
    3. Hubby generally cooks dinner
    4. Easy access to really good natural products
    5. Our awesome dog

  16. Sapphire Avatar

    I’m grateful for the fact that you always seem to be posting about exactly what I’m thinking! A true source of encouragement. It’s actually a little strange… Like you’re in my head. Love it! Thank you. I need to make gratitude lists a habit. I’ll list one more thing.

    I’m grateful that even though I have ptsd, there is hope for my peace of mind. Everyday is a new day and today I gained a new tool.

  17. Betty Davis Avatar
    Betty Davis

    I am grateful for this crisp fall day and the fall season, for the abundant harvest in spite of the crazy weather and losing our cellar wall because of torrential rains last May, I am grateful for all the wonderful folks who helped us get back on our feet following the May deluge, for the craftsmen who charged us less then they could have for excellent work digging diversion ditches, hauling top soil and gravel, using their expensive toys to help with the manual labor, a now warm (lost the furnace and hot water heater) home and hot showers, for strength and energy in these retirement age bodies to keep slugging for 6 long months, a caring husband, good neighbors. But above and beyond all, my Savior and Lord Jesus for His presence, power and protection in our lives. What a great God we serve. Thank you Katie for the chance to express my thanks.

  18. Tiffany Avatar

    I am grateful for my church, Hope City, my daughter, my parents, the fact that my daughter and I have a safe place to live, i am thankful for extra sleep!!!


  19. Anne Avatar

    I’m thankful to God from whom all blessings flow: for my church, children, home, friendships, piano students, good food, health, and eternal life through Jesus Christ!

  20. Lisa Avatar

    As a practicing psychotherapist I normalize with clients our biological negativity bias. And that it takes consistent practice/training to make a habit of gratitude.

    I have made it a practice to note as I go through each day recognizing the abundant moments of grace that I am the recipient of every day. I am grateful for the run on trails in the beautiful western NC mountains I got to have this morning. That I made it safely from home to trail and back. That i had the most wonderful running companion, my little dog Zoey, who has enriched my life since I picked her up from a local shelter last Valentine’s day. I am grateful for relaxation time in a comfortable home, taking a warm shower, enjoying delicious coffee meal drink (with Vital Proteins gelatin in it!) I am grateful for being able to do the work I do that feels in line with what I am here to do. I am grateful for the connections i have with so many people. Also grateful for people like you, Katie, for taking the time and care in extending information you have learned to others like me.

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