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Researchers have found a scientific connection between gratitude and good mental health.
This connection makes sense: Our perceptions of the world shape our reality, so seeing the world through a lens of gratitude can change our experiences, and our experiences help shape our mental wellness.
Gratitude can increase your mental strength and keep your mental wellness in tip-top shape. Think of gratitude as a workout for your brain, it helps you stay strong and healthy. But please know this: Simply choosing to look at the world with gratitude won’t cure a mental illness, and people who have mental illnesses aren’t ill because they lack gratitude.
When you’re sick or hurt, workouts can’t fix the problem—you need to see a doctor. In the same way, mental illnesses and mental health crises are health conditions that could greatly benefit from treatment from a qualified mental health care
Benefits of gratitude on mental health
The connection between gratitude and mental health and wellness isn’t direct or immediate. Instead, the connection is a chain reaction. Gratitude begins a cycle of habits and experiences that can result in better mental health.
For example, let’s say you get called in for an extra shift at work today. You aren’t happy about having to work on your day off, partly because you now must find childcare for your daughter. Fortunately, your mother-in-law can come over to help.
By the time your mother-in-law arrives, you’ve had a few minutes to adjust to the idea of working. It’ll be good, you think, to get out of the house for a while anyway. Rather than complaining about your boss, you decide to thank your mother-in-law for her willingness to help care for your daughter on short notice.
Research shows expressing your gratitude can create positive emotions in your brain. And it doesn’t stop there.
You’re also creating positive emotions for your mother-in-law who will likely respond positively. She may be more likely to help with childcare again. She’ll also feel more connected to you and supportive.
This more supportive relationship creates an improved positive environment that fosters better mental wellness.
The situation may have turned out differently if you’d started complaining about your boss and apologizing to your mother-in-law as soon as she arrived.
Overcoming the obstacles to gratitude
Gratitude is a habit, and like any habit, you must practice it for a while before it becomes an automatic part of life.
Some of us will struggle to develop a consistent practice of gratitude because we have too many bad habits, or obstacles, in the way. These obstacles can include:
Comparing ourselves to others
It’s easier than ever to compare ourselves to others now that social media is embedded in society. Remember, you’re unique. There’s no way to compare yourself to others accurately, and people’s online posts don’t usually reflect reality anyway.
Seeing only the worst in others
Always finding and focusing on the worst in other people can get in the way of gratitude. There’s good and bad in everyone. When possible, try to see this nuance in others. This nuance is humanity.
It’s hard to find gratitude when you’re overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. Try this:
Instead of thinking, “Great, now that I’m finally off work I have to go to the grocery store to pick up dinner,” think, “Wow, it sure is nice that I have enough money in the bank to buy dinner tonight.”
Always feeling like a victim
This one’s complicated, so let’s be clear: We’re not talking about being a victim of abuse or a crime. When that happens no mindset change will fix trauma, help from mental health professionals can assist in those cases.
Instead, we’re talking about how you see yourself in everyday circumstances. Even when things haven’t gone your way, try to focus on the things that have gone your way and on the important knowledge you’ve gained from those experiences.
For example, let’s say you had to quarantine during COVID for two weeks (but were never in danger of being seriously ill). You could’ve seen yourself as a victim of a virus, or you could’ve chosen to be grateful you could work from home and that you didn’t suffer the worst symptoms of the virus.
The downside of gratitude on mental health and wellness
Gratitude can backfire. This happens when people use gratitude to overlook problems that need to be resolved.
For example, let’s say your neighbor is being emotionally abused by someone at work. When you learn about it and suggest that she tell someone, she says, “Well, I’m fortunate to have a good job, and I’m focusing on that.” This isn’t mentally healthy.
Here’s a more common scenario in which gratitude can backfire: Let’s say you feel sad most of the time, and you’ve felt this way for weeks. You’ve thought about seeing a counselor, but what would your family and friends think? You have a good relationship, children, a good home, a good job, and a safe car. What do you have to feel sad about?
Over time this situation can erode mental wellness because trying to develop a habit of gratitude is delaying something you need: Help from a mental health care provider. When you’re struggling with depression, trying to overcome your symptoms by practicing gratitude can make the depression worse. Plus, you’re adding guilt into the mix — guilt for not feeling grateful enough.
When gratitude isn’t enough: How to find help
Gratitude and mental health are connected. Mentally healthy people can enhance their mental wellness by learning to practice gratitude. For people who struggle with mental health, practicing gratitude can slowly improve their day-to-day experiences and lead to better mental health.
But expressing gratitude won’t be enough if you are experiencing a mental health crisis, or if you’re struggling with a mental illness.
Mental Health Associates of the Triad partners with people who need help navigating a mental health crisis or illness. If you live in the High Point and Greensboro areas, you can make an in-person appointment.
In other regions, look for qualified mental health care clinics, or try to find an online therapist who has the skills and knowledge to help. And, if you need immediate help because you’re thinking about suicide, dial 988 right now.
Like physical wellness, mental wellness is part of who you are and how you feel. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices
Working with a mental health care provider can help you reach a point where you can use gratitude to fine-tune your mental health. Help is available. That’s something we can all be grateful for.
Reviewed by Karen Rudd, LMFT, LCAS