It may be the season of giving thanks, but practicing gratitude can really help you all year long. From helping you feel more rested when you wake up in the morning to keeping your ticker ticking, “thanks” is that gift that keeps on giving.
“We can really facilitate both mental and physical health by shifting our focus to positive experiences and emotions,” says clinical psychologist Sarah Kopelovich, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
If you’re looking for some motivation for your Thanksgiving dinner table, consider these five science-backed ways that gratitude benefits your body, mind and life.
1. Enjoy a stronger sense of well-being
Experiencing gratitude from helping others and appreciating the positive things in your life can make you a happier person, research shows. And gratitude can act as a counterweight to anxiety and depression, says Kopelovich.
Anxiety involves excessive worrying about things that have happened in the past or may happen in the future. With depression, people are more tuned in to the negative. But practicing gratitude forces you to acknowledge the good in the world, she says.
“It can be extremely challenging to train your brain to be aware of the positives in the world when you’re anxious or depressed,” says Kopelovich. “That said, we have more and more evidence that the practice of gratitude can both make someone less vulnerable to distress and it can predict greater psychological well-being.”
2. Have a healthier heart
Acknowledging what you’re grateful for—and writing it down—could be good for your heart, according to a 2015 study.
Researchers recruited 186 heart failure patients who weren’t yet experiencing symptoms, such as shortness of breath or fatigue. After having the patients complete a set of psychological questionnaires, they found that gratitude was associated with less inflammation, which is a factor that can speed up the progression of heart failure.
To take it a step further, the researchers wanted to see what would happen if these folks kept gratitude journals, writing down what they’re thankful for every day for eight weeks. It turns out those who made a conscious effort to track gratitude not only had less inflammation, but healthier heart rhythms.
The researchers noticed that study participants were also sleeping better and had improved well-being, which could be how gratitude indirectly improves heart health, they write.
“The link between gratitude and physical health is not likely a straight line, but gratitude certainly seems to be functioning in a protective fashion,” says Kopelovich.
3. Love your job
Gratitude doesn’t have to end at home. Feeling appreciated at work leads to improved job satisfaction and quality of life, according to a recent University of Washington study called The Grateful Workplace.
The researchers looked at things like appreciation programs and having contact with people who benefit from employees’ services. They found that even small acts of gratitude could have a trickle-down effect, says Jared Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in organizational behavior at UW who was one of the study authors.
“These gratitude events led to more persistent gratitude, where individuals felt grateful, eventually leading to collective gratitude within the organization,” he says.
More evidence that gratitude at work is helpful: In one study, receiving a thank you note from a manager boosted worker performance by 50 percent.
4. Sleep better
If your brain goes into overdrive before bed, focusing on the good might help you get more sleep, according to a study out of the UK.
For the study, researchers measured gratitude by asking people how strongly they agree or disagree with phrases such as, “I have so much in life to feel thankful for,” “I am grateful to a wide variety of people,” and “When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.”
Those who rated higher for gratitude were able to fall asleep faster and had greater sleep quality and duration. As a result, they were also more alert during the day. Why? Grateful people are less likely to think negative and worrying thoughts when they’re falling asleep, and are more likely to think positive thoughts, the researchers write.
In other words, they didn’t lie awake in bed thinking about all of the awful things, which helped them get better sleep.
5. Learn to cope with stress
How you deal with stress can have a big impact on your well-being, says Kopelovich. And research shows that grateful people have the psychological resources to cope with stress in a more productive way.
In one study, people who practiced gratitude were more likely to cope with stress by seeking help from others, looking for the positive in negative events, actively coping and planning. On the other hand, people who didn’t take time to smell the roses were more likely to deal with stress by disengaging, blaming themselves, using substances or being in denial.
It may seem like a simple thing, but for some, practicing gratitude in real life can be even harder than making it to the gym—especially on days filled with stress and bad news, says Kopelovich. She recommends starting small, and not beating yourself up over it if some days you forget to acknowledge what you’re thankful for.
“We have to remind ourselves that gratitude is a skill that needs to be cultivated, with intention. The important thing is to make a commitment to integrating gratitude into your life in a conscious and deliberate way and to make a plan for how you’ll do that,” she says.
Gratitude won’t take the place of treatment from a mental health professional for clinical anxiety and depression, says Kopelovich.
“But gratitude is a practice that anybody can do on their own and see at least some in-the-moment benefits to feelings of anxiety and depression,” she says. “That’s profound in terms of affecting one’s day-to-day experience, and it could have longer-lasting implications for our relationship with stress.”