Gratitude and Well Being

Expressing thanks may be one of the simplest ways to feel better

Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual values in their life, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people focus their attention on what is good, precious and valued. Living as we do in Australia, there is always something to be thankful for no matter what a person's circumstances.

Psychologists, Emmons and McCullough, conducted a study in which participants were asked to write a few sentences each week focusing on particular topics.[1] One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them with no emphasis on them being positive or negative. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Interestingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to doctors than those who focused on sources of annoyance. Similar results have been replicated in subsequent research.[2]

Cultivating gratitude is a practice and there are many ways to direct attention toward the positive aspects of your life.

Write a thankyou note. Growing up, did your mum insist that you write a note to your aunties and uncles thanking them for your birthday gifts? This practice might well establish more than just good manners.  Writing a thankyou note to a friend or loved one for their support, thoughtfulness or their valued traits can not only grow your relationship, but the act of time spent appreciating your friend or loved one exercises neural pathways that focus attention on the positive aspects of your life.[3] This attention and focus can generate a positive effect on mood and has been shown to extend beyond the moment in which your attention was focused on the giving thanks.  No time to write? A simple text message giving thanks to a friend might also achieve a similar result – building your relationship and increasing your own positive mood and feelings.  

Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down your thoughts about the gifts received each day. You may like to literally count your blessings and aim to recognise 3 things each day for which you are grateful. Be specific and think about the sensations you feel when something good happens. By developing this daily practice, you draw your mind’s attention to the positive events and feelings. The practice aims to overcome the negativity bias which is generally considered to be part of the human condition – an evolutionary survival mechanism in which our brain is wired to focus on potential threats, dangers and negative events.  In the practice of keeping a gratitude journal and aiming to recall 3 or more things for which you are thankful, you may find that you come to spend your days looking for joy. What a wonderful state to be in!

Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness can be an antidote to “mind-full-ness”. A busy and over-active mind can result in spending your days inside your mind rather than living in the beauty and joy of the present moment. Thinking about the many things you have to do, worrying about meeting deadlines or perseverating on past hurts will all fuel a negative state of mind. And yet none of them exist in the present moment. You could be sitting on a beach, listening to waves, basking in gentle sunshine and still worrying about some future or past event. Mindfulness is a psychological state of awareness often referred to a ‘being in the moment’. Mindfulness techniques include listening to the nearby sounds, feeling the sensations on your skin and in your body, ‘watching’ your thoughts, and recognising your place in the broader world. You could be sitting in traffic, running late for work and feeling relaxed. It is possible (albeit a learned skill) to focus on relaxed deep breathing, feeling the rhythm of your heart beat, feeling the sensation of the air-conditioning blowing gently on your skin or just enjoying the music on the radio. These simple acts can create calm and fuel a positive state of mind. [4] [5] [6] [7]

Meditation. The daily practice of meditation has been linked with reduced stress and anxiety, improved concentration, better sleep, improved cardiovascular health, improved mood and greater happiness.[8] [9] One of the most common reasons people turn to mediation is for stress reduction and public figures who report significant benefit from their daily meditation practice include Rupert Murdock, Katy Perry, Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood, Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey. Meditation is thought to achieve similar results to mindfulness, but the pathway is less direct. Meditation is often promoted as best performed upon waking but the effects of calmness and relaxation are thought to be sustained throughout he day. The secular popularity of mediation has increased as more people discover its benefits, and why not, when there is potentially so much to be gained!


This holiday period may be the perfect time to implement a practice of gratitude. We wish you a Merry Christmas but perhaps of more value would be to wish for you and your families, a holiday season filled with gratitude.


[1] Emmons RA  et al (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89.

[2] Sansone RA, Sansone LA (2010) Gratitude and Well Being, Psychiatry 7(11): 18-22

[3] Wood AM et al (2010) Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychological Review. 30(7): 890-905

[4] Davis DM, Hayes JA (2011) Practice Review: What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. American Psychological Association 48(2): 198-208

[5] Praissman S (2008) Mindfulness-based stress reduction: A literature review and clinician’s guide. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. 20(4): 212-216

[6] Brown KM, Ryan RM (2003) The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822-848

[7] Keng SL, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ (2011) Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Reivew 31(6): 1041-1056

[8] Goyal M et al (2014) Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine 174(3): 357-368

[9] Chen KW et al (2012) Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Official Journal of Anxiety and Depression Association of America 29(7): 545-562