• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

How Gratitude Can Support Your Mental Health

Have you ever had a thought that you just cannot seem to get out of your head? Like a catchy song, it just plays over and over again in your mind. A common way we try to get rid of a ruminative thought is by telling ourselves not to think about it - but this is actually an ineffective method for combating such thoughts. Telling yourself to stop thinking about something is ineffective because it directs your attention to the very topic you are trying to get away from. An alternative strategy you can use is to reflect on the things that are going well and reorient your attention to the aspects of life that bring you joy. Gratitude journaling, a daily practice of documenting the things you are grateful for, is one way to do this. Here is why it works...

Modern Western culture places a large emphasis on consumerism and competition, which can often lead us to developing a scarcity mindset. A scarcity mindset is characterized by a preoccupation with obtaining and maintaining and focuses on the potential of loss. Whether the focus is on finances, relationships, health, or status, the scarcity mindset concentrates on the threat of loss, which causes you to operate out of fear and anxiety. The antidote for thinking from a scarcity mindset is to adopt an abundance mindset, which can be done through practicing gratitude. In contrast to a scarcity mindset, an abundance mindset is oriented toward looking for opportunities and growth. By keeping a gratitude journal, you engage in a daily practice of shifting your mind away from scarcity and toward abundance.

Keeping a gratitude journal can also change our brain. Research has shown that gratitude exercises activate the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for decision making and can be thought of as the central command center in the brain. The medial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that shuts down during and following stressful events. Gratitude journaling is one way to get this part of the brain back online, restoring balance in the way we think and feel about our experiences. (1).

When you create a regular practice of gratitude journaling, it orients your attention toward things you are grateful for. If you know that at the end of the day you will sit down to journal about the things you are grateful for, it will prompt you to look for things to be grateful for.

At the end of the day, set a timer for 10 minutes and write continuously about things you are thankful for until the timer goes off. You can write about anything you are grateful for – big or small. The following questions can be used to guide your journaling:

What am I grateful for?

How has this enriched my life?

If you get stuck, think about the following list and write about what comes up for you.

> People you are grateful for – past and present

> God/religious blessings

> Funny moments

> Accomplishments you achieved/tasks you completed

> Improvements in areas you are working on

> Nature and scenery

> Something you learned or discovered

> Opportunities that were presented to you

> Experiences of grace

> Ability and opportunity to travel

> Health and a functional body

> Modern conveniences

> Work and finances

> A physical sensation you enjoyed

> Something you are looking forward to

> Weather

1. Yu, H., Gao, X., Zhou, Y., Xhou, X. (2018). Decomposing gratitude: representations and integration of cognitive antecedents of gratitude in the brain. The Journal of Neurosciences.


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