December 27, 2018

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 is to keep a gratitude journal, because years of research predict the journal will make me happier.

Each night, I plan to dutifully express my gratitude for friends, health, and coffee. But a new study suggests that I might want to do more than put pen to paper. I should thank the people who make my life a little better face to face who make my life better.

“Although gratitude is often depicted as other-oriented, in many cases it is never expressed to the other,” write researchers from the University of Limerick.

But what happens when we do express the gratitude that we’re journaling about? According to their study, the practice becomes even more beneficial.

Gratitude becomes even more beneficial when we express it IRL.
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The researchers recruited nearly 200 participants (ages 18-84), who were split into three groups. One group wrote in a gratitude journal three nights a week for three weeks, focusing on positive social interactions or relationships they appreciated that day. Another group kept a similar journal, with a twist: At the end of each week, they thanked someone in their lives about something specific—Thanks for being such a good listener yesterday!—and then reflected on the person’s response and their own feelings. A control group journaled about things that happened during the day.

Before the experiment, immediately after, and in a series of follow-ups, participants filled out surveys about their life satisfaction, positive and negative emotions, and depression during the previous month. They also rated how often they expressed gratitude in their relationships and how grateful they felt overall.

Right after finishing three weeks of journaling, the gratitude-expressing group was faring the best: Their negative emotions decreased more than those in the other groups, and they also felt less depressed and more emotionally balanced than when they started.

“Other-oriented gratitude appears to be particularly effective in enhancing emotional well-being when this gratitude is outwardly expressed,” the researchers conclude. In other words, says lead author Brenda O’Connell, “When you feel thankful for someone, actually thank them!”

One month later, both of the gratitude groups seemed to be doing equally well: Compared to the control group, they were still experiencing less negative emotion and a more positive balance of emotions, even though the experiment was long over.

Being instructed to express gratitude was particularly powerful for participants who came into the study with higher symptoms of depression. In their case, there was a direct link between how often they expressed gratitude in their relationships and how much more positive they felt one month after the experiment.

Share the Gratitude Goodness

As we know from past research, expressing gratitude to someone makes a big impact—it can boost our happiness months later, make us see them more positively, and strengthen our relationship.

Expressing gratitude to someone makes a big impact—it can boost our happiness months later, make us see them more positively, and strengthen our relationship.
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This study is part of a new wave of gratitude research exploring not just if gratitude journals work, but how and when. To reap continued benefits, we probably need to practice gratitude continually—aiming to cultivate a more enduring attitude of gratitude.

So, how can you get in the habit of expressing your gratitude IRL? Try setting up cues in your week to remind you to say thanks. Maybe use your commute or elevator ride to fire off a text thanking your friend or partner. Or, use your mid-afternoon coffee break as a chance to write a thank you note. Another idea: Cap off every email session by writing one note of thanks to someone in your network.

It might feel awkward at first to take your gratitude from your journal to the real world, but it'll get easier the more you practice. I know I've decided to tweak my 2019 gratitude goal and start sending thanks to more of my friends, family, and coworkers, too!

A version of this article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.


Read next: Gratitude Is Self-Care Gold—Here's How to Actually Make It a Habit

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