As Thanksgiving is approaching, I wanted to look up some research on gratitude. I found a study that looked at using writing expressions of gratitude as an adjunct to mental health counseling.
The Gratitude Writing Experiment: Wong and colleagues (2016) examined 293 adults seeking treatment at a university counseling center that were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:
- Gratitude writing
- Expressive writing
- Control group (no writing assignment).
Participants in the gratitude and expressive writing conditions had three writing assignments. Each week for 3 weeks, the participants were asked to write for 20 minutes.
Gratitude Writing Condition: The individuals in the gratitude condition were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone they feel they haven’t properly communicated their gratitude or thanks to. They were encouraged to write about how the person impacted them, what they did for them, and their feelings for this individual. They had the choice of whether to write to the same person over the three writing assignments or to write to different people each time. The choice of whether or not to give this letter to the person they wrote to was 100% up to the participant.
Expressive Writing Condition: In the expressive writing condition, participants were asked to write about the most upsetting or stressful moments in their lives for the three writing assignments.
Participants were asked to complete a measure of General Mental Health at baseline (before they started their writing assignments), 3 weeks, 4 weeks after the completion of the writing assignments, and 12 weeks after the completion of the writing assignments. This measure assessed well-being, clinical symptoms, and life functioning.
The Results!: In a nutshell, at 4 weeks and 12 weeks after completing the writing assignments, participants assigned to write letters of gratitude had significantly better outcomes on the mental health measure than the other two groups.
This is just one research study and there’s ongoing research to determine how effective gratitude is to our well-being. Talk to your therapist if you think gratitude could be something you’re interested in cultivating more of. It could be interesting, as part of your therapy, to discuss what you learn about yourself in the process of writing letters of thanks to those people that were a meaningful part of your life.
Reference: Wong, Y.J., Owen, J., Gabana, N., Brown, J.W., Mcinnis, S., Toth, P. & Gilman, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from an evidenced based trial. Psychotherapy Research, 191-202.