On Gratitude: The Benefits and Challenges of Feeling Thankful + How to Practice Giving Thanks


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Giving thanks is a universal phenomenon across world religions and cultures. Just as Americans still celebrate their yearly Thanksgiving, the Sanskrit term Dhanyavāda in Hinduism denotes an expression of thanks often used in meditation or prayer [1], and Muslims believe that god rewards those who serve with gratitude (verse 3:145 of the Quran), not to mention the celebration of the annual Eid al-Adha as a way to both show one’s devotion and appreciation towards god’s blessings. In Hebrew, the word for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which literally translates to recognizing the good in one’s life [2].

It’s certainly wonderful that our ancestors understood and cultivated gratitude as part of their lives long before today’s scientists and psychologists began studying gratitude in relation to psychological well-being— this in itself hints at the host of advantages gratitude already bestowed upon those before us. With the advent of psychology and psychotherapy, research now affirms that there is indeed a strong positive association between gratitude and life outcomes such as physical health, relationships, life satisfaction, and subjective well-being [3].

The Benefits of Gratitude

Other benefits of cultivating a sense of gratitude include having a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure (both considered physical benefits), more joy, pleasure, optimism and higher levels of positive emotions (psychological benefits), and a tendency towards prosocial behaviors such as behaving in more compassionate, helpful, forgiving, and generous ways towards others (social benefits), not to mention a shield against burnout [4]. In addition, gratitude itself is a positive emotion whose presence not only naturally keeps away difficult emotions such as envy and resentment, but gives us a kind of perspective that makes us more resilient, confident and feel less lonely in the face of stress [5]. *For more on emotions, check out our guide to emotions.

But what does it really mean to be grateful? For that, we have to turn to the definition of gratitude according to those who study it:

Gratitude is simply defined as the act of taking note that there is in fact good in our lives and simultaneously acknowledging one by one what exactly is good (what exactly we are thankful for), followed by finding an explicit way to communicate such thanks— for instance, by expressing it externally to someone (either in a letter, through text, or face to face) or to god during prayer [6]. The latter is an important component of the definition of gratitude because it reminds us that we are very much dependent on and connected to both others and the circumstances the universe presents to us (think about the person who gave you that opportunity and about how your life would be different without your close friends’ presence).

The Challenges of Practicing Gratitude

Truly, gratitude is about realizing how we owe a lot of the things we might be taking for granted to factors outside of ourselves. That being said, gratitude can be a little bit challenging for human beings to practice for a few reasons. Firstly, gratitude demands that we focus on our life as it is and not as we want it to be, which is difficult as human beings tend to fixate on what is lacking, perhaps so that improvements can be made… in other words, total acceptance is necessary for gratitude. Secondly, gratitude asks us to acknowledge what others do or have done for us once we have acknowledged the good things in our lives (review the definition of gratitude in the previous paragraph)… in short, it’s not because we’re so great that we are where we are. Rather, it’s because of those blessings that have come our way whether we really deserve them or not.

Lastly, for those with adverse childhood experiences such as those with a history of complex trauma involving prolonged interpersonal abuse and emotional neglect and invalidation, gratitude might not always make much sense because taking note of, feeling, and expressing thanks could sometimes feel like they are putting into question and discounting what has happened to them in the past, ridiculing the pain of their inner wounded-child so to speak [7]

*If you’d like to reap the benefits of practicing gratitude but struggle practicing it due to difficult past experiences that affect your ability to regulate your emotions and feel safe in your body and mind, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional through psychotherapy first. 

Consequently, cultivating a sense of gratitude cannot be the only solution to emotional pain that stems from traumatic experiences, as such experiences require healing processes such as the integration of the self (part of which involves fully facing the reality of past events that affected one’s sense of self) [8] and the active learning and usage of coping and emotional regulation skills, including relaxation skills such as breathing and grounding to calm a dysregulated nervous system. Similarly, gratitude shouldn’t be used to distract us from actual threats and warnings we should take heed of.

Nevertheless, gratitude can still enhance everybody’s lives as it encourages us to pay attention to what is going well— and everybody could use a breather once in a while.

How to Practice Gratitude

At this point, you might be wondering how you can practice gratitude in order to actually reap the benefits of feeling thankful. Don’t be surprised, as it’s almost too simple to be shared: just do anything that involves the act of you acknowledging your blessings, preferably both to yourself and relevant others: this could involve scheduling a time to sit down and reflect on (on paper or in your head) what you’re grateful for, keeping a gratitude journal, writing to someone to thank them, thanking someone mentally by simply taking note of what they’ve done for you, adding gratitude to your meditation routine by placing your non-judgmental awareness and focus on things you’re grateful for in the present moment (a sense of peace, freedom, the breeze from the fan across your face, being able to breathe well, being alive!), or using prayer to acknowledge and communicate your thanks.

In a nutshell

Without a doubt, gratitude is a prosocial emotion that boosts our moods by forcing us to humbly realize the ways in which we benefit from entities outside of ourselves, whether that’s other people, god, or other unknown forces, which makes for not only less lonely but more optimistic, happier, physically healthier, and more compassionate and satisfied human beings [9]

Before you go, if you’d like emotional support, personal guidance for self-discovery, and motivation to tackle issues that may be holding you back, open yourself up to one of our many well-received programs!




[1] https://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/dhanyavada

[2] https://firmisrael.org/learn/hebrew-word-for-gratitude/ 

[3] https://news.iu.edu/stories/2020/02/iub/inside/18-joel-wong-tips-for-cultivating-gratitude.html 

[4] Chan, D. W. (2011). Burnout and life satisfaction: Does gratitude intervention make a difference among Chinese school teachers in Hong Kong? Educational Psychology, 31(7), 809–823. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2011.608525


[6] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier#:~:text=In%20positive%20psychology%20research%2C%20gratitude,adversity%2C%20and%20build%20strong%20relationships 

[7] https://cptsdfoundation.org/2021/11/22/gratitude-and-the-trauma-sensitive-approach/ 

[8] https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma 

[9] https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf 


Written by :

Iffah Suraya

Lifelong Learner and Mental Health Counselor

Alumni of Boston University, USA, and University of Malaya, Malaysia