Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Science tells us gratitude is good for well-functioning people. What about people with mental health challenges? In 2015 a large study was done with people seeking counseling at colleges for issues such as anxiety and depression. Three groups received counseling for a few months: One group wrote weekly letters of gratitude to someone, another group wrote weekly about their feelings about stressful life experiences, and others did no writing exercise, just counseling (control group).
The gratitude writing group reported the most improvement in mental health, regardless if letters were sent or not. In fact, the majority of people did not send their letters. Simply expressing gratitude helped subjects appreciate people in their lives and shift attention away from negative feelings and thoughts.
In the two writing groups researchers counted both positive and negative emotion words written. For people who reported better mental health in time, it wasn't the abundance of positive words that showed the improvement, but rather the lack of negative words. Whatever we focus on expands.
The benefits of gratitude take time. After four weeks there was some improvement in the subjects’ mood and even more improvement after twelve weeks.
Also after three months, fMRI scans were done, comparing the gratitude writing group and controls. Both groups were given money by a "benefactor" and asked to give to a charity if they felt grateful, while their brains were being looked at. They decided how much to give. They rated how grateful they felt versus guilt or obligation if they chose not to give. People who felt more grateful (not guilty or obligated) gave more money to a cause. Their medial prefrontal cortex (the brain area associated with learning and decision making) showed more neural sensitivity. This suggests people who feel more grateful are more attentive to how they express gratitude.
The gratitude letter writers showed more activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude from being given money. This happened three months after the letter writing began. This suggests that showing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain, and may train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude in the future. These findings, while not conclusive, could help contribute to improved mental health for people over time.
At a time when people are feeling so much stress gratitude could help. Why not try writing a letter today?
Title of paper: Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial