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Gratitude: The Not-So-Secret Key to Happiness in Hard Times


Amidst the current global pandemic, rising unemployment rates, and the majority of us in isolation, you might be challenged by someone asking you the question: “What are you grateful for?”

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, answering this question could just be the best way to experience some much-needed relief.


So, what is gratitude and why is everyone talking about it?

Gratitude is a feeling of genuine appreciation for what one receives, which can include tangible and intangible things that can feel BIG or little [2] such as:

  • Gifts
  • Favours
  • Advice or guidance
  • Free time to relax in nature
  • Being able to spend time with a good friend
  • Being able to enjoy your favourite cup of coffee each morning
  • Having a secure job or roof over your head

All of these sources of gratitude can be derived internally from, such things as:

  • Our own capabilities
  • Our physical and psychological health etc.

Or externally from:

  • Other people
  • The planet
  • A higher power etc.

We say genuine above because it is important to find an authentic reason to give thanks. A key finding is that gratitude is only beneficial when it’s tied to something you are actually grateful for, not something you are trying to be grateful for. [1]

Though you’ve likely experienced genuine gratitude and know that it makes you feel good momentarily, you might be wondering why you’re hearing this word pop up in every motivational TED talk and self-help podcast right now.

The answer to your question lies in the growing field of positive psychology, where much of the research on gratitude is taking place.

In 2000, founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman and his colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brought to light the profound realization that much of the psychological research of the second half of the 20th century focused on themes including depression, irrationality, self-esteem management, and growing up in adversity, with almost no research exploring character strengths, virtues and the conditions that lead to high levels of happiness. [6]

“At the heart of a vast majority of positive psychology research lies the topic of gratitude.”

Since 2000, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi have paved the way for positive psychology researchers to build a foundation for the “scientific study of what goes right in life.” [5]

More than any other positive emotion, the experience of gratitude has been scientifically proven to over-time enhance overall well-being. It might be hard to believe that something so simple can be so impactful but guess what? It works.


Practicing the art of gratitude is pretty much the not-so-secret key to happiness!

It has been scientifically proven that gratitude:

  • Is consistently associated with greater happiness [2]
  • Has a positive effect on your immune system (definitely a perk right now!) [3]
  • Helps you sleep better at night [4]
  • Enhances feelings of positive emotions [2]
  • Can improve physical and psychological health [4]
  • Helps people deal with adversity [2]
  • Improves self-esteem [4]
  • Builds stronger relationships [7] [2]

Several studies have indicated for example that the more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. In one study led by clinical psychologist, Philip Watkins, it was found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls [8].

On the topic of relationship success, after two decades of research conducted by famous marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, he stated that;

“…unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater), it is likely the marriage will end.” [8].

He went on to state that he can predict, with 90% accuracy, after only three minutes of observation, which marriages are likely to flourish and which are likely to face immense difficulties.

According to Gottman, the winning formula for successful relationships is: for every negative expression (a complaint, put-down, showing of anger etc.) there needs to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter, with one of the most important being, expressions of appreciation and gratitude). [8]


So how does practicing gratitude *actually* lead to all of these awesome benefits?

The latest neuroscience research on gratitude has revealed that when we express and receive gratitude, we get a hit of both feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. These are two essential neurotransmitters that are responsible for our positive emotions – enhancing our mood and making us feel happy from the inside-out. [9]

The more frequently we practise gratitude, releasing these neurotransmitters, the stronger our neural pathways become related to positive thoughts, feelings and sensations – the ultimate positive feedback loop! Over time, this literally changes the makeup of our brain and shifts the way we feel day-to-day.

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.”

It has also been shown that “the reason why some of us are naturally more grateful than others, is the neurochemical differences that can exist in the central nervous system. People who express and feel gratitude have a higher volume of grey matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus” [9].

Even more amazing, studies have shown that we can actually increase gray matter density in this region of the brain through a regular meditation practice! The results of a 2011 study suggest that participation in an 8-week meditation-based stress reduction program (MBSR) is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking.

So it turns out that frequently asking yourself: “what are you grateful for?” may be an effective way to help combat stress and improve resilience during these turbulent times.



Want to give gratitude a try? Here are some simple gratitude practices you can do daily:

#1 Keep a daily gratitude journal highlighting three things you are thankful for

Did you know that journaling on its own has a whole host of psychological benefits? Keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to reduce stress, improve quality of sleep, and build emotional awareness. [9]

#2 Write a gratitude text, email, or letter

Take a moment and write a letter, email, or text to your spouse, partner or friend, telling them something you appreciate about them. UC Davis psychologist, Dr. Robert Emmons suggests that “focusing our gratitude on people for whom we’re thankful rather than circumstances or material items will enhance the benefits we experience.” [1] [3]

#3 Meditate

Though this might not seem like a typical gratitude practice, being grateful requires awareness and presence. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to focus on the present moment non-judgmentally. During meditation, you are often asked to pay attention to your breath, however, for this exercise try to focus on what you feel grateful for (the time to meditate, a pleasant sound, the warmth of the sun on your face etc.).



  1. Wong, J., & Brown, J. (2017, June 6). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved from
  2. Harvard Health Publishing. (2011, June 5). In Praise of Gratitude. Retrieved from
  3. Carpenter, D. (n.d.). The Science Behind Gratitude (and How It Can Change Your Life). Retrieved from
  4. Morin, A. (2017, November 27). 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round. Retrieved from
  5. White, M. A. (2016). Why won’t it Stick? Positive Psychology and Positive Education. Retrieved from
  6. Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and Why) is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.103 Retrieved from
  7. ALGOE, S. A. R. A. B., GABLE, S. H. E. L. L. Y. L., & MAISEL, N. A. T. A. L. Y. A. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. IARR, 217–233. Retrieved from
  8. Robbins, O. (2013, October 30). The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier. Retrieved from
  9. Chowdhury, M. R. (2020, February 11). The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief. Retrieved from

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