Can you relate to any part of this scenario? 

You’ve been running late all day because you accidentally set your alarm to PM instead of AM. You’re trying to coach or train via the internet, but your wi-fi is acting up, so you’ve had to cancel some clients for today. You run to the store to get one thing and they’re out of that one thing. You decided you needed a midday boost because you’re exhausted and still have work to do, and then proceed to spill your coffee in your car. Your dog got into something they shouldn’t have and has proceeded to throw up all over the living room rug…

While some days seem to leave little to be thankful for, studies reveal that practicing gratitude is vital to our health and well-being—and even produces changes in the brain. 

“Gratitude can have a Prozac-like effect, where it can boost the neurotransmitter serotonin, which boosts feelings of well-being,” explains Mark Mayfield, PhD, owner of Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colo. “If we look at mindfulness and meditation as a whole, when we choose to be grateful, it strengthens the anterior cingulate portion of the brain, which helps make a stronger connection between our limbic system—the emotional brain—and our prefrontal cortex—our thinking/reasoning part of the brain. Essentially, it can make us more thoughtful, well-rounded human beings.”

And research backs this up. 

For example, one study out of Indiana University found that when subjects participated in a gratitude writing intervention, the medial prefrontal cortex showed greater modulation—and continued to show this modulation three months later (modulation is an approach to studying brain function in vivo, meaning, in living human beings). Another study showed that “ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex.” 

Gratitude can also improve our health. In her video presentation from University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Gratitude Summit, Wendy Mendes, PhD, discusses the results of her ongoing research regarding gratitude. She explains how gratitude correlates with biological markers of health, including lowering blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol, and raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol. Research also shows that people who practice gratitude exhibit greater well-being, including being less likely to suffer with depression and anxiety; they are also more optimistic, and more socially connected. People who exhibit higher levels of gratitude also tend to be less angry and even sleep better. 

Note: If you want a deeper dive into the science of gratitude, check out this white paper from the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

“Gratitude is a remarkably connecting activity,” explains Evelyn Bilias Lolis, PhD, associate professor for psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University and author of the chapter, “Mindful Gratitude in the Schools: Building Capacity Across the Tiers” in the American Psychological Association’s book Promoting Mind-Body Health in Schools: Interventions for Mental Health Professionals. “Gratitude is well-established, too, by naturally fostering connectedness between an individual and [whatever they’re trying to connect to, whether it be] another human being, an animal, nature, God or a Higher Power. It has also been linked to powerful physical and emotional outcomes, including increased feelings of well-being, improved sleep quality, and higher levels of empathy and connection, as well as decreased negative emotions, including anxiety and aggression, and decreased complaints of aches and pains—to name a few.” 

But be careful not to confuse gratitude with a rose-colored-glasses, always-positive attitude, says Mayfield. They are not the same thing. “Most often, an upbeat, positive attitude is based on circumstances. When things are going well, so are we; when things aren’t going well, neither are we. Gratitude is a practice, a habit, a choice and is not based on circumstances.”

“Gratitude as a lifestyle practice is, indeed, a type of mindfulness activity,” agrees Bilias. “The practice of mindful gratitude involves the commitment to attending to the world in a way that allows you to intentionally scan your environment and pause to savor things for which you are grateful each day. This is not always easy and it involves a steadfast commitment to being intentional. In this way, mindful gratitude is similar to a meditation—it requires focus, a pause and a leaning into the moment at hand.” 

“An upbeat, positive attitude is often optimism—a positive expectation about what will happen in the future,” adds Aurora Winter, MBA, author of six books, including Grief Relief in 30 Minutes and a contributing author to GAIN Without Pain by Greg Hammer, MD, a book in which “G” stands for gratitude as one of the pillars for well-being. “Gratitude is appreciating the present. You can feel grateful for your body—and how wonderful it is to see, smell, taste, feel and move—right now. Yes, you can get stronger, slimmer and more supple—[which is optimism for the future]—but you can also feel grateful for your body right now.” 

In this video, writer and health coach Carrie Myers describes how to apply the research on gratitude to your work with clients to help them improve their health and well-being.

Coach Your Clients Toward an Attitude of Gratitude

Because being thankful for what we have is not natural for most of us—and focusing on the negative and what we don’t have is—it’s important to establish a ritual of gratitude. You can’t simply tell yourself that you’re going to be more grateful—you need to create time and space to make gratitude a regular practice. And you can coach your clients to do the same. 

But first, Mayfield offers this word of caution to coaches: Don’t ignore a client’s struggle. “Validation of emotions is very powerful,” he points out. “When life sucks, we need people to validate that life sucks and not try to fix us. Having someone sit with us in the struggle is a powerful tool for healing. Developing mindful and meditation practices is also very powerful.”

To develop a mindfulness and meditation practice, Mayfield uses a very simple tool. “The easiest way to do this is to have the client list at least one thing they are grateful for and why. The ‘why’ is very important, as it provides them with the opportunity to tell the story, thus activating the brain science I previously described.”

How Do You Score on Gratitude?

It’s often handy to have a baseline for clients so that you and they can see their progress over time. Clients who are more numbers-oriented will find assessments especially helpful. University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center offers an online gratitude assessment that is quick, easy and anonymous. You’ll even be contributing to the greater good, as researchers use participants’ responses for their research.

Mayfield says that, ideally, your client will work up to listing five things they are grateful for and why each time they use this tool. Bilias concurs. “A gratitude journal is a very potent practice. Encourage [your clients] to explicitly write three to five things for which they are grateful daily with good specificity.”

Bilias adds that getting explicit is key. As an example, she says that instead of just saying, “I’m grateful for Mary,” try something like “I’m grateful for my conversation with Mary today, which showed me a way to look at [a specific situation] differently.”  

Winter suggests evaluating your day with an attitude of gratitude and recommends the Three Good Things approach, which involves reflecting upon and responding to the following two questions: What are the three things that went well today? and What was your role in bringing them about? “Fall asleep reviewing three things that went well that day,” says Winter, “and how your character and choices contributed to them going well.” 

Encourage clients to go for mindful, gratitude walks, noticing nature and what they are thankful for within it. Walking can also be a great time to practice meditation. Another activity you can suggest to clients is creating a gratitude collage. Each day, have them take a picture of something they’re grateful for and make a collage of the photos for a gratitude board. You can find additional worksheets, journal pages and gratitude-inducing activities in the resources listed in the box below. 

“Cultivating a mindful gratitude practice is very similar to exercising and developing a physical muscle,” concludes Bilias. “You need to commit to it faithfully, be patient with it when sore or tired, and know that you are working toward a lifestyle that involves peace, connection and seeking the beauty in all things.”

Gratitude Resources 

UC Berkeley's Greater Good in Action page

Positive Psychology’s Gratitude Exercises