One new research will be conducted in order to define the effects of gratitude on mental health.
From the growth of managed healthcare, that is known for its’ low cost and high effectiveness, arises one very important question that concerns mental health professionals: How to provide the clients with the most beneficial treatment in the shortest time possible?
Some fresh findings indicate that the answer to this question may lie in conducting some supplementary activities, in addition to the psychological counseling, that would be beneficial as well as cost-effective for clients. Here, we will present the results of a research focused on practicing gratitude as such actity. According to the results of some of the studies over the past few years, those people who have a habit of counting their blessings live happier and less stressful life.
These issues are the core of a recent research study in which participated around 300 adults, most of whom college students in need of a mental health counseling at university. All these people were recruited right before their first counseling session, and in general, at that time they were struggling with their mental health.
In general, the two most common problems the students at this university who needed counseling services struggled with were anxiety and depression. Because of the fact that nearly all of the previous research studies concerning gratitude included students or other people without mental health problems, the question is: Is gratitude helpful for people with mental health problems and if so, how?
Is gratitude helpful for people with mental health problems and if so, how?
The people who were asked to undergo this research study were randomly divided into three groups, and all of them received counseling service. The first group was additionally asked to write a letter of gratitude every week addressed to another person, during a period of three weeks. The second group had to write and express the way they feel about a negative life experience, while the third group had no such writing activity.
What was the conclusion? Four and twelve weeks after the end of the writing activities, the first group participants who wrote gratitude letters showed improved mental health in comparison with the participants from the other two groups. At this point we come to the conclusion that gratitude writing can have positive effects not only over people with normal health, but also over those with mental health problems. As a matter of fact, even if it was during a short period of time, expressing gratitude can be even more beneficial than the counseling alone.
If we analyze the results of this research we will come across some impressive facts about that how gratitude affects our mental health and our overall wellbeing. It is also important to mention four still unproven insights that derive from this research, which could help us discover the source of the beneficial effects of gratitude on human mental health.
1. Gratitude sets us free from negative emotions
To begin with, from the vocabulary analysis of the participants from the two groups who were assigned with writing activities, taking into consideration how commonly the participants used positive and negative emotion words, as well as “we” words, we can conclude that the participants who wrote gratitude letters mostly used positive emotion or “we” words and a significantly small percentage of negative emotion words, compared to the participants in the other writing group. This analysis was very helpful for understanding how the gratitude letter writing practice turned out to be beneficial for people’s mental health.
This means that it was not the often use of positive emotion words, but the lack of negative emotion words, that was crucial to differentiate the gratitude writing group from the other writing group.
In fact, people who used small percentage of negative words in their gratitude letters were more likely to have better mental health later, than the people who used more positive emotion and “we” words. This means that it was not the often use of positive emotion words, but the lack of negative emotion words that was crucial to differentiate the gratitude writing group from the other writing group.
This may indicate that gratitude letter writing improves people’s mental health by diverting their attention away from negative emotions like anger and jealousy. By writing about the things we are grateful for in our life, we redirect our thoughts away from the negative life experiences.
2. You don’t have to share gratitude to feel the benefits from it
The participants that were expected to write gratitude letters were not expected to send them. Even though only 23 percent of the participants decided to send the letters they wrote, those that didn’t were also able to feel the benefits of expressing gratitude. (However, due to the small percent of people who send their letters, it was difficult for experts to define if these participants had better mental health than those who didn’t.)
Only 23 percent of the participants decided to send the letters they wrote
This means that if you want to write a gratitude letter to someone, but you have doubts about sending it to that person, you should write it anyway (although experts also recommend sending it). It doesn’t matter what will be your decision about the letter, the process of writing is effective enough to remind you of the worth of the people around you and to redirect your mind from all negative thoughts and feelings.
3. Benefits of gratitude are not immediate
It is good to know that gratitude’s benefits will come over time, because many other studies do not show such encouraging results. They actually show that gratitude’s effects decrease as the time passes. However, the research study we analyze is an exception of all the other studies. This may be because the participants who were assigned to write gratitude letters shared their thoughts with their counselors, or with other people. This may have even strengthened the mental health benefits that came as a result of gratitude letter writing.
The participants from the three groups didn’t show any specific differences in their mental health one week after the writing activities ended, but after four weeks the participants in the gratitude writing group have showed better mental health results, that became even greater twelve weeks after the end of the writing activities.
To sum up at this point even though the improvement in the mental health of the participants in a gratitude writing process won’t come right after the end of the writing activity, don’t be impatient and keep in mind that the benefits of gratitude might take some time to take effect.
4. Gratitude has long term effects on the brain
The people from each group were given a “pay it forward” task, and while they performed it their brain was subjected to fMRI scanning. In the description of this task they received a small amount of money from a third person known as the “benefactor”, who asked them to give the money to someone else only in case they felt grateful. It was on the participants to decide if, and how much money they will pass on to a worthy cause (actually all the money went as a donation to a local charity). To find out if the people’s brains process information in a different way three months after the start of the counseling sessions, some people who wrote gratitude letters were compared with those who didn’t write anything.
The results showed that people who were more grateful in general gave more money to a cause, as a result of a greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, area of the brain that is related to learning and decision making. From this we can conclude that more grateful people pay closer attention to how they show their gratitude.
In order to make a difference between the donations driven by gratitude and those driven by other motivations, like sense of obligation or guilt, the participants were asked to evaluate their gratitude towards the benefactor, to define the amount of money they are ready to give to charity and to explain whether they will feel guilty if they didn’t give any money. Apart from this, they had to fill a questionnaire in order to ascertain their gratefulness in life overall.
Among the participants, those who felt more grateful showed different brain activity from those who gave money driven by guilt or by the desire to help. The results showed that people who were more grateful in general gave more money to a cause, as a result of a greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, area of the brain that is related to learning and decision making. Taking into consideration all the above-mentioned, we can conclude that more grateful people pay closer attention to how they show their gratitude.
Another interesting finding is that while gratitude letter writers experienced gratitude, the medial prefrontal cortex showed significantly bigger activation on the fMRI scanning. This is even more intriguing because these tests were conducted three months after the start of letter writing which implies that the expression of gratitude may have long-term effects on the brain. Additionally, even it is not proven, expressing gratitude now, can influence the brain and make it more prone to gratitude in future, which could also gradually lead to improved mental health.
This is just the beginning of one significant research, but so far we can come up with the fact that gratitude letter writing could be very helpful for people who need counseling services and it could explain what causes the beneficial effects of gratitude on human mental health. The findings from this research could also be useful for mental health professionals as a suggestion how to improve their services and make them more beneficial for the clients.
Nowadays, most of the people are focused and constantly pursue things that are not worthwhile. So, we recommend writing a gratitude letter even if you are a perfectly healthy person, just because gratitude helps us define clearly our priorities and reminds us of the worth of the people around us.