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More PsychNotes: Happiness and Well-being

January 24, 2017       

Can a Gratitude List Make a Difference in Your Life?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

writing a gratitude list

We often hear about how keeping a list of things for which we are grateful can improve our well-being and health. Can such a simple activity make a difference? The answer is “yes” but not any more of a difference than other psychological techniques (Davis, et al., 2016). So perhaps it is just a matter of preference. Also, simple gratitude is not an effective technique for anxiety (read PsychNote: It's Not as Simple as Being Grateful).

Why is a happiness list effective?

The most effective treatments are those people are willing to do routinely. Writing a gratitude list is often enthusiastically embraced by people for several reasons:

1) Easy. Most people can understand the concept and it doesn't take much time to do.

2) Enjoyable. Any method that is enjoyable is more likely to be completed regularly. But one person might enjoy writing a list while another person enjoys progressive muscle relaxation. Enjoyment is a matter of preference.

3) Social. Tends to help people recall important social memories. Also, gratitude often occurs when receiving unexpected generosity from others.

4) Practical. Such methods are useful and can often enhance other treatment.

What other methods can be used?

However, this method is not the only way to improve well-being. A meta-analysis that examines the combined conclusions of multiple studies (over 30) comparing a gratitude list or gratitude letter with other interventions showed that the following were equally effective:

1) Acts of kindness. Look for opportunities to engage in acts of kindness and/or keep a list of kind things you do for others.

2) Cognitive diary. Examine self-talk and challenge any inaccurate statements that create problems in your life.

3) Relaxation. Engage in relaxation methods such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery.

4) Worry records. Keep a record of worries to help you examine and problem-solve.

5) Journaling. Journals focused on your best possible self or future self can be effective.

So, the bottom line is do whatever is most appealing to you. But do something!

Excel At Life provides an app to help with many of these different activities: Happy Habits: Choose Happiness.

Davis, D.E., Choe, E., Meyers, J., Wade, N., Varjas, K., Gifford, A., Quinn, A., Hook, J.N., Van Tongeren, D.R., Griffin, B.J. and Worthington, Jr., E.L. (2016). Thankful for the Little Things: A Meta-Analysis of Gratitude Interventions. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2016, 63, 20 –31. DOI: 10.1037/cou0000107

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Dr. Monica Frank

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