It’s healthy to be grateful, but how much is too much? As a psychology student I wanted to know, so I started digging…
In the late 1960s, psychologist and educator Martin Seligman’s discovery of learned helplessness kick-started a field that would later be coined by Seligman as positive psychology. Many mental health professionals have embraced this shift from practicing disorder psychology (fixating on what’s wrong with us) to focusing on enhancing people’s positive mental health and well-being.
Benefits of Gratitude for Physical & Mental Health
An emerging field from this groundbreaking work in positive psychology sees gratitude as a way to foster positive mental health. Subsequent research has revealed that regular gratitude interventions or practices, such as daily journaling on five blessings in your life, can provide a wide range of positive effects. They can help improve life satisfaction, sleep, and relationships, while reducing physical challenges (e.g., pain and heart problems), and mental health concerns (e.g., stress, depression, and anxiety). Neuroscience has established that different brain areas are involved when we actively express or emote gratitude, and that gratitude practices can influence our brain activity in lasting ways.
We know gratitude can foster better physical health and well-being, and that unlike other non-drug treatments for mental health challenges, gratitude practices don’t require strict clinician guidance, making them accessible to everyone. So what’s not to love? It’s tough to think of any negative outcomes from regularly reflecting on what we appreciate. But before we advocate for daily thanksgiving, it’s important to consider that glorifying and overusing gratitude practices can be dangerous.
Risks of Toxic Positivity
Despite the rise of gratitude messaging in the world of psychology, we are also hearing more about the somewhat contradictory concept of toxic positivity. This refers to the idea that constant focus on (and prioritization of) positivity is actually harmful, as it leaves no room for reflecting on, expressing, or validating the negative or difficult thoughts and experiences that are part of everyday life.
Just think back to when you were having a tough time and someone said, “It could be a lot worse, just be grateful it’s not.” While a hard dose of perspective about our hardships is often helpful, sobering, and occasionally reassuring, it assumes that our difficulties can be placed on a relative scale and results in suppression of negative thoughts and feelings.
Toxic positivity forces an unhealthy coping style that prevents needed support and permits internalization of struggles that can persevere in a never-ending cycle. Unfortunately, toxic positivity is all too common, with many of its negative impacts contributing to stigma, inhibiting open discussion about mental health issues, and preventing people from seeking treatment or therapy. Bottling up negative feelings and difficulties can have a plethora of negative impacts, including the development or persistence of mental health challenges, as well as social isolation, loss of self-esteem, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that gratitude practices remain untainted by toxic positivity.
While research presents sound evidence for the effectiveness of gratitude practices, the many negative outcomes of toxic positivity underline the importance of handling and using gratitude practices with care, either personally or around other people, to ensure they remain free from any undertones of toxic positivity. Telling someone to “just be grateful for what you have” can be a form of toxic positivity and is the last thing any person needs to hear, let alone someone struggling with mental health concerns. “Advice” like this discounts people’s suffering, invalidates their experiences, and creates feelings of shame and guilt for not embracing the good in their tough circumstances. However, it is fair to say that pervasively ruminating in constant sadness, stress, or anxiousness isn’t healthy either, and that legitimate gratitude practices are designed to help shift negative feelings to positive ones in ways that don’t invalidate them.
Popular Gratitude Practices
Gratitude practices abound, but the top ones recommended and explained on PositivePsychology.com include the following. Check out what might be best for you!
- Gratitude reflection and/or meditation
- Gratitude prompts
- Gratitude Letters/Emails
- Gratitude jar, rock, tree, flower, garden, collage, amble
Everyone’s optimal balance between a positive outlook and time for processing and exploring negative feelings is different, and heavily influenced both by environment and internal needs. You can help meet your own unique needs by:
- Appreciating the positive rather than only expecting and accepting positivity
- Building a unique environment or system that prevents toxic positivity.
And when mentioning or recommending gratitude practices, consider the language you use to ensure it doesn’t foster toxic positivity. That means avoiding assumptions that what works for you MUST work for others, or any sort of implication that choosing to avoid gratitude interventions is selfish or lazy.
Gratitude practices aren’t simply about needing to be grateful, they are about evoking positive thoughts and feelings associated with the things in our lives we enjoy and are thankful for. Life has both those positive aspects as well as some struggles, and appreciating the positives should not mean ignoring or invalidating the negatives. If used with consideration and acceptance of inevitable struggle, gratitude practices can effectively build resilience while improving physical and mental well-being.
- The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief
- Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity
Alanna Kaser is an undergraduate psychology student passionate about mental health advocacy, science communication, working with youth, and learning new things. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering, reading, and staying active by coaching and playing soccer. After completing her undergrad, she hopes to pursue higher education to become a clinical child psychologist and researcher.