I can think of few practices in psychology and wellbeing as powerful as that of a daily gratitude practice. And, perhaps not coincidentally, I can also think of few tenants more central, more foundational to a Christian faith than that of gratitude.

All of us know gratitude as a general sense of “thankfulness” for the people and the things in our lives. Yet, I’m not sure that definition really describes the full measure of what gratitude entails. I much prefer the following definition by Robert Emmons, possibly the foremost expert on gratitude in the world: Gratitude is “the knowing awareness that we are the recipient of goodness.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, for many: this very small, and simple habit of awareness has the capacity to radically transform our lives, according to research in psychology, improving everything from our physical health, to our mental health, to our relationships, and our faith. (More on this below.) So it seems that “giving thanks” is not just a notable way of bringing glory to God (which would surely be enough!!), but is also a practice that in his omnipotence and omniscience he knew also gives back to us.

Read just a few of the surprising benefits of a gratitude practice below, and see how scriptures like “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) take on a whole new meaning. Citations are provided for anyone interested in digging into the research more on their own. Or check our my ______ page for even more on this topic.

Here are 9, scientifically backed benefits to being grateful:

1. Gratitude improves psychological health & happiness 

Scientists have found that a daily gratitude practice can improve our peace of mind: by decreasing our experiences of negative emotions while simultaneously increasing our experiences of positive ones. Gratitude leads to decreases in depression,  anxiety5, envy, and materialism2,3. A daily practice can make us more optimistic: more likely to see our glass, day in and day out, as half full4. Even more than that: researchers believe that a gratitude practice is so powerful that it can even recalibrate our setpoints for happiness, making us happier people at our typical, every day baseline, despite genetics, upbringing, and the ever changing nature of our circumstances1. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, has remarked, “when we take time to notice the things that go right – it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day” (BrainyQuote, n.d.).

2. Gratitude improves physical health 

Individuals who practice gratitude report fewer health complaints overall, ranging from decreases in aches and pains, more energy, and fewer doctor’s visits, to decreased inflammatory markers expressed at the cellular level. Grateful people are also more likely to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as exercise, leading to even greater health benefits over time.6,7

3. Gratitude leads to closer, more fulfilling relationships

People who practice gratitude daily report feeling less isolated and alone and more socially connected to the people in their lives. They are enjoyed and trusted more by the people around them, and they report having an easier time making friends. They also report having stronger and closer relationships than others8. Who wouldn’t appreciate that?

4. Gratitude increases self esteem

Practicing gratitude can also make you more confident in yourself, in your life circumstances, choices, and capabilities over time, while also helping you feel happier for the accomplishments and strengths of the people around you.9 Comparison may be the thief of joy. But grateful people are less likely to fall into that comparison trap to begin with!

5. Gratitude leads to better quality sleep

Many of us know what it’s like to struggle to sleep. But, according to research, instead of grabbing a Benadryl or counting sheep, a more effective means of relaxation may be counting our blessings!

Research shows that those who engaged in a daily gratitude practice reported better, longer, more satisfying sleep,which is associated with all sorts of improved physical, and psychological health outcomes..10

6. Gratitude increases resilience in the face of stress

Life can be stressful and challenging. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was something that could help us through when times get tough? According to research, there is. It seems that people who practice regular gratitude are more capable of seeing the “silver lining” in hard times and report feeling less stress than others, even when things are hard. 11

7. Gratitude maximizes enjoyment 

Humans have an uncanny ability to take the good things in life for granted. Even individuals who experience a windfall of good luck or blessings all at once, such a winning the lottery or having a baby, relatively quickly adapt to this change in their lives and return to feeling the same baseline emotions that they felt before the windfall. See hedonic treadmill for more on this. As the bible says, the human heart is never satisfied. However, when we focus on our blessings and practice gratitude for what we have, we are able to better savor the enjoyment of the little and the big things: the people, the places, and the events all around us, windfall or not.12

8. Gratitude draws us closer to God

And if these other things weren’t enough, individuals who reported engaging in greater degrees of gratitude on a regular basis also reported feeling increased closeness with God and trust that He is caring for them through the thick and the thin. As of late, I’ve noticed this in my own life. Stopping to thank God for his benevolence and love has noticeably increased the number of times I go to him each day and increased my belief that he is “working all things out for my good and for his glory.”

9. Gratitude changes your brain

Consistently focusing your attention a few minutes a day to the positives in your life actually trains your brain to see the beauty and goodness around you automatically. Gratitude can be viewed, then, as both structural changes to the brain– greater cortical volume–, as well as changes in the ways different regions of the brain function (Zahn et al., 2014; Kini, Wong, et al 2016). Over time, these brain changes can truly add up to much more than the sum of their parts!

***It is important to note that the people in many of these studies listed above were not grateful simply because they had more than other people. They weren’t simply more social, more healthy, more happy, slept better, and therefore more grateful. Without going down a rabbit hole of research methodologies, which most people wouldn’t appreciate, researchers who studied these behaviors went to great lengths to ensure that the study groups and the experimental manipulations in their studies were meticulously controlled, so that the effects could only be attributed to differences in gratitude. (For the research savvy folks, a good example of this, see Wood et al., 2008.)

Truly, gratitude makes that much of a difference! And God, in his divine knowledge of us, knew that. So next time you consider counting sheep, or counting calories, or counting the extra cash in your bank account to make you feel better or pull you out of a rut, perhaps consider counting your blessings instead. It may just be the answer you’ve been looking for all along!

Feel free to follow along with more in this series, if you’re interested. Next up: some of the proven ways to practice gratitude.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash