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How Gratitude Increases Joy and Changes the Brain

This time of year, gratitude is on our minds. But what IS gratitude, really? And why is it so important to our wellbeing?

You might have heard that gratitude is a practice, and it certainly is. But gratitude is more than that. Gratitude can also be defined as “a general state of thankfulness or appreciation.” When we view gratitude through this lens, we see it’s not only a practice we can participate in regularly, but actually a way of being.

Gratitude as a Grounding Tool

When we view gratitude as a way of being, and not just a thing that we do, we can use it in so many ways to improve our lives. Gratitude can keep us grounded when we feel like life is becoming too much. It can keep us present and focused on the joy we already have in our lives, instead of fixated on what we’re lacking. Brother David Steindl-Rast put it this way:

"It's not joy that makes us grateful, it's gratitude that makes us joyful.” This mindset allows us to look inward to find contentment, instead of always having to look to our circumstances to bring us joy. If we’re in a continual state of gratitude, we’re much less likely to be affected by the behaviors and attitudes of others. It adds a layer of protection around us, allowing us to more easily repel negative energy from others and instead focus on cultivating our own inner peace.

How Gratitude Affects Wellbeing

We now have empirical evidence that gratitude is directly connected to wellbeing. Many studies have been conducted to assess the effects of gratitude, including one study of nearly 300 adults who were seeking mental health counseling at a university. The participants were divided into three groups: one group wrote a letter of gratitude to another person each week, the second group wrote about their feelings about negative experiences, and the third group did no writing activity. The study found that “Compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.”

Additionally, the study found that those who wrote the gratitude letters “showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner” three months after the letter writing began.

So not only does gratitude improve wellbeing in the moment, but it may actually have lasting effects on the brain.

How to Start Incorporating Gratitude into Your Life

Something that holds people back from incorporating gratitude is overthinking it. Gratitude is actually extremely simple, and you can start utilizing it without a lot of effort.

The thing to remember is that gratitude can be anything! It can be gratitude for the mug of warm coffee in your hand. Or gratitude for friends you can connect with, or a family that brings you fulfillment. You can look out the window and feel grateful for the leaves changing color, or the pattern of clouds in the sky.

How Can I Help?

Gratitude is an important step toward living a healthier life, but sometimes you need a little more guidance. If you’re struggling with anxiety or burnout and you need some help finding practical tools to improve your wellbeing, I’m here to help. Book a free consultation with me here.


The content found on Integrative Counseling and Nutrition Consulting platform is not intended to be a substitute for professional therapeutic advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your psychiatrist, therapist or other qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition.


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