How Giving Thanks Improves Mental Health


While research suggests that gratitude can literally rewire your brain to respond in happier, healthier, less stressed ways in the long term, please know that practicing gratitude is not a substitute for seeking professional help from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist/counselor if you are suffering from severe depression and/or anxiety or are considering self-harm, suicide, or harming others.

Why Should Teens Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is important at any age, but it is especially important for teenagers for a couple reasons. Positive emotions, like gratitude, “open us up to more possibilities,” and, when we are open, we are more capable of learning and making good decisions. Research has also shown that “gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity”—essentially, while adults derive positive benefits from practicing gratitude, children do not. Since learning from your mistakes and making good decisions are also marks of emotional maturity, it stands to reason that young adults, still in the midst of rapid growth and development both of their brains and of their core values, should start reinforcing positive psychological pathways.

I remember being 16 and badly wanting to be considered an adult by all the real adults around me. And while I’m still not sure that I qualify as a real adult all these years later, the primary difference I can identify between me then and me now is how I think about and respond to situations. Now, I am more open to constructive criticism and to learning a better way to do things. I make fewer decisions based on panic or emotion. I try to put other people’s needs first. Not that I always succeed at these—I don’t. But I’m conscious of the need to do them, and I do my best. And gratitude has a huge part in the times I’m successful. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to try again and to do better the next time. I’m grateful to have people in my life with more experience than me who I can ask for advice before making decisions. I’m grateful to have people whose needs I need to consider because it means I’m not alone.

For me, the learning curve between wanting to be an adult and thinking like an adult was steep. There were plenty of mistakes and a lot of painful lessons before I got to a place where gratitude could start to win in my thoughts. And I can’t help but wonder how much heartache I might have saved myself if I had started intentionally practicing gratitude at 16 and forged those positive thought processes from the beginning.

Does Gratitude Help You Become a Better Leader?

Gratitude definitely seems to help people become better leaders. A leader who is calmer, happier, and more positive due to the personal effects of practicing gratitude is already in a better emotional situation to handle unexpected stress or workday difficulties. But beyond being more personally ready to lead, a boss who can exude a sense of calm during a busy day is like a balm in the workplace—they can bring down the stress levels of all the employees around them because the situation always feels under control. Likewise, the boss feels approachable, like someone an employee could come to for advice or encouragement.

Gratitude also keeps you humble because you necessarily acknowledge all the people outside of yourself who made your success possible—the employees who all pulled 12-hour workdays right alongside you, the assistant who got you lunch and held your calls so your workflow wasn’t interrupted, or the janitorial staff that kindly skipped vacuuming your office the night you worked so late you accidentally fell asleep at your desk. When a leader expresses humility and gives credit where credit is due, it makes the people they lead more willing to make similar sacrifices for the success of the group in the future because they know their sacrifices will be noticed and appreciated.

How Can Students Show Gratitude?

There isn’t a right way to practice gratitude. It doesn’t matter if you do it when you wake up or when you go to bed. It doesn’t matter what method you choose. About the only thing that does seem to matter is the frequency. According to research, we see the most benefit from practicing gratitude about once or twice a week. When we start focusing on positive events too frequently, our brains adjust and seem to just filter it out. Practicing gratitude once a week or so forces our brains to pay close attention to positive things in our lives while still being a novelty that we don’t just acclimate to.

Write a Thank-You Note

I won’t lie—I still have a box full of handwritten notes passed to me in junior high and high school. The ones I treasure, though, are the ones where my friends thank me for being there for them, or listening, or simply being me. I’ve saved Christmas cards and birthday cards filled with gratitude for my existence too. Even when some of the people who wrote these notes and cards haven’t been in my life for 20 years, the sentiments still mean something to me. I also recently came across a note I must’ve received in high school from a secret admirer. And sure, a lot of it was silly and about how my hair caught the light in the hallway, but, years later, it still felt good to read that someone thought I was awesome enough to tell me about it.

Writing a thank-you note can definitely encourage your own feelings of gratitude as you think about everything you want to thank this person for, but it can also inspire feelings of gratitude in the recipient for years to come. So write an email, send a letter via snail-mail, or pass a note in the hallway. 

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