How Can Giving Thanks Benefit Your Mind and Body?  

Woman standing in the sun.

Posted November 20, 2020

This year, fewer loved ones may be seated around your holiday tables due to state mandates directing us to limit or skip our traditional gatherings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. And you have every right to feel disappointed. That’s why now is actually the perfect time to cultivate gratitude for all that remains good in your life. In fact, science tells us that giving thanks delivers big health benefits that can lift your mood and improve your overall sense of well-being.

Gratitude Reduces Pain and Depression

Gratitude indicates appreciation for good fortune. We often give thanks to other people, but we can also experience a profound feeling of gratitude toward nature, a higher power or even fate.

Research studies have linked feeling grateful to a boost in other positive emotions like happiness, hope and pride. Gratitude correlates with higher self-esteem and more generous behavior, as well as stronger relationships. It can increase mental strength and reduce depression so that we can better respond to trauma and improve our ability to process the world around us.

Studies also show that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people. This is mostly because they make their health a priority and are more likely to seek health care when they need it. 

Life during a global pandemic has most certainly raised our stress and anxiety and shifted how we respond to these challenges, but gratitude can help us cope and move positively through this time. 

Grow Your Gratitude with Practice

Like any other skill, gratitude can be cultivated with practice. 

Our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for positive feelings, when we express and receive gratitude.

The more we activate the “gratitude circuits” in the brain, the more automatic a grateful disposition becomes.

Person writing a journal entry.
  • The “3 Good Things” exercise is a nightly activity that involves naming three good things that happened during your day, and considering why each one occurred. This brings awareness to the goodness in our lives and who/what contributes to it, as opposed to our usual focus at the end of the day on what went wrong or did not get done. In controlled studies, happiness was shown to increase sustainably for months after the exercise was assigned.
  • A gratitude letter is written to express thanks to someone you haven’t had the chance to fully thank. Most powerful when shared in person with the recipient, it can also be a meaningful experience to share by phone or in writing, or simply for the sake of writing it.
  • A challenging gratitude exercise is to recall two recent events that didn’t go well or that are bothering you, and to look for a silver lining. Did anything good come out of it, or can you imagine someday something good coming out of it?

Try out each exercise to see what feels right for you. They can also make for good dinnertime conversation — on video chat or in person. While a Thanksgiving meal with your household is a great place to kick off a gratitude practice, it’s the daily rehearsal that seems to create gratitude routines in our brains and our lives that lead to beneficial effects. And despite hand-washing, gratitude and positive emotions are contagious – so spread freely!

Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, is a child psychiatrist with the UVM Children’s Hospital and is assistant professor and clinical director of outpatient child psychiatry at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. 

Learn More Ways to Stay Healthy and Cope with COVID-19