What if there was a way to become more present, peaceful and happy—and it doesn’t require a lot of time, a big effort or any money? Mental health experts say it’s possible when you harness the power of gratitude.
“Showing gratitude can improve your mental health,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD. “There are always going to be negative things happening, but focusing on the good helps ground us and positively affects the way we live our lives.”
Dr. Charguia and Crystal Schiller, PhD, a UNC Health clinical psychologist, explain how expressing gratitude can improve your health and some practical ways to get started.
How Gratitude Improves Health
Showing gratitude increases feelings of well-being and improves the quality of relationships, which can make you feel happier and improve your overall health.
“When you feel better, you can sleep better, have better relationships and make better decisions,” Dr. Charguia says. “These changes can have a ripple effect to promote emotional and physical health as well.”
Generating a good mood can lead to better heart health, boost your immune system and put your whole body at ease.
“If you think about how you feel when you’re anxious, you breathe fast, your chest and shoulders tighten, and you sweat,” Dr. Schiller says. “Positive emotions have the opposite effect—they slow your breathing, your muscles relax and your entire body functions better.”
How to Start Practicing Gratitude
Anyone can start practicing gratitude today. It will come naturally to some and others will need to put a little more work into it, but the most important thing is to start, Dr. Charguia says.
“Even if at the beginning it feels like something you have to do instead of something you want to do, that’s OK,” Dr. Charguia says. “Going through the motions can help a habit become automatic and eventually shift the lens through which we approach life.”
Set aside a few minutes a day to think about two or three things you are grateful for. Examples could include your family members, friends, career, health, home, pets—the possibilities are endless. You can talk through your answers (Dr. Charguia says talking to yourself in this way can be a good practice), or write your responses down in a notebook, gratitude journal or even a note on your phone. There are also several mindfulness apps that prompt you to express gratitude.
Once you choose a process that works for you, find a time of day to do it that will fit into your routine. Some will prefer to start their day with gratitude, while others may choose to reflect right before bed.
“Consistency is key,” Dr. Charguia says. “Even though it’s a brief exercise, the benefits add up over time.”
As you practice gratitude, if you find that you are grateful for connection with someone else, Dr. Schiller recommends reaching out to that person to let them know. You can send a quick text, email or call them, and make sure to be specific.
“Research shows the effects of gratitude are the strongest when you share what you appreciate about others,” Dr. Schiller says. “So if you are grateful someone brought you cookies, instead of keeping it to yourself, tell them. And don’t just say, ‘Thank you for the cookies.’ Say, ‘You are an amazing baker and so thoughtful. Thank you for the cookies.’”
Focusing on Gratitude Is Especially Important During Stressful Times
Dr. Charguia, who practices gratitude in her own life, says it’s even more important to stay consistent during times of stress.
“I look at life with an optimistic lens naturally, and sometimes that lens shifts when I’m stressed,” Dr. Charguia says. “I see a direct benefit from practicing gratitude—it helps me feel calmer and focus on the positive.”
Stress—even stress caused by good things, such as the hustle and bustle of the holiday season—can leave you feeling drained. Practicing gratitude can help restore balance in your life. She recommends being purposeful during busy times, even setting alerts to remind yourself to take time for gratitude.
“The holidays can be emotionally consuming, as it’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of giving, gathering and doing,” Dr. Charguia says. “Be sure to plan time to tend to your own needs. Scheduling time for gratitude can help you be intentional about checking in with yourself and making sure you’re not running on empty.”
When to Reach Out for Help
While showing gratitude can help improve your mental health, don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression or another mental health condition. You can start with your doctor, who can help you identify next steps such as therapy.
If you feel like you might hurt yourself or someone else, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline .
Looking for a mental health provider? Find one near you.