Gratitude and Grit

October 31, 2022

Grit is the mindset we use to persevere through tough times. And nurturing positive emotions like gratitude is key to building grit. To illustrate that point, I’ll share a quick story.

This story comes from Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis and the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude; and Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University. 

It's about a woman, Susanna, who was facing severe stress in many areas of life. Her husband had cheated on her; he had also nearly bankrupted the family with a gambling addiction. A recent accident had strained the family's finances even further. Susanna was struggling. 

Susanna’s therapist suggested exercises on gratitude as part of her treatment plan. You may be thinking, "Yeah, okay. What can a warm-and-fuzzy feeling like gratitude possibly do in the face of such serious stress?"

But gratitude did two things for Susanna. First, it kept her from social isolation and emotionally available for her children. This is because gratitude is a "prosocial" emotion that strengthens our bonds with others. Second, as she thought about the next steps she wanted to take in her marriage and life, gratitude also instilled in Susanna a sense of anticipation and hope for the future.

We have seen the same phenomenon with a recent crisis on a more global scale. Recent research* during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that gratitude: 

  • Boosted positive feelings like joy, cheerfulness and took the edge off of negative feelings like distress and fear;
  • Reduced perceived stress levels;
  • Alleviated feelings of depression in frontline healthcare workers; and
  • Strengthened social connections and built a sense of hope.
*Research citations appear at the end of this article.

There are Three Steps to Gratitude. 

Dr. Emmons has described 3 key steps to gratitude:

3 Steps of Gratitude

First, we recognize that a gift or benefit has been given to us. Second, we intellectually acknowledge the value of the gift or benefit. We affirm that something good has happened and we understand that others deserve the credit for that.

In the third step, we figuratively move from our head to our heart: we react. We appreciate the gift and the giver. This is important because it means that gratitude is not usually a solo exercise. Gratitude points us outside ourselves and helps us recognize how others support and enrich our own existence. 

This is Your Brain on Gratitude.

The act of gratitude triggers a fireworks show of activity across the brain. 

This is your brain on gratitude

The pyrotechnics start in sensory processing centers as we see, feel, hear, taste, and touch the world around us. As we react to novel stimuli, "feel-good" chemicals shoot out along the brain's reward pathways like sparklers. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain's center of analysis and reason, also lights up as we recognize and understand what's happening. 

Here's where things gets really interesting, because the PFC is also massively connected to brain and body systems that regulate our emotions and even our response to stress and pain. Researchers believe that this is how gratitude exerts its analgesic effect (it does activate the brain's natural opioid pathways, after all) and helps calm us down in stressful circumstances. 

The practice of gratitude has been shown to alter both our brains and behavior. For example, in one study researchers divided people who were struggling with anxiety or depression into two groups: 1) therapy or 2) therapy plus gratitude exercises. After three months, those who practiced gratitude had a greater PFC response and also acted with more gratitude.

Gratitude is Fertilizer for the Mind.

In The Little Book of Gratitude, Dr. Emmons wrote, “Gratitude is fertilizer for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of existence.”

It’s no wonder, then, that gratitude can impact us is so many wonderful ways:

Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to boost happiness, optimism, joy, and enthusiasm. Gratitude also helps us when we’re struggling - it dampens feelings of anxiety and depression and boosts our resilience during crisis.

Gratitude makes us healthier. We experience less aches and pains and less health problems. We sleep better. We also tend to take care of ourselves better - we eat better and exercise more, we keep up with health check-ups, and we avoid risky behaviors and substances.

Gratitude improves relationships by creating a virtuous cycle of trust and generosity: we care more about others and they, in turn, appreciate us more. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in understanding others’ perspectives and giving rise to empathy. Brain scans of those who regularly practice gratitude show that this brain area lights up more during altruistic tasks, and they take more pleasure in helping others.

"The brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. Rest your mind upon worry, sadness, annoyance, and irritability  and it will begin to take the shape neurally of anxiety, depression, and anger. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for, and begin to take the shape of gratitude.” - Robert A. Emmons, Little Book of Gratitude

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How to build GRIT and GRATITUDE

Below, you will find some tried and true exercises for building more grit through gratitude:

  • Gratitude Journal

  • Gratitude Letter

  • Gratitude Jar

  • Gratitude Rock

Gratitude Journal

The first is one of the simplest and therefore easiest to do.

There's no right or wrong way to keep a gratitude journal. And you don't to journal every day, either. But the purpose of each entry is simply to reflect back and remember 3-5 things you’re grateful for. You can use prompts if you would like - here are some from a positive psychology site:

  • I’m grateful for three things I hear, see, smell, taste, or touch:
  • I’m grateful for these three animals/birds:
  • I’m grateful for these three friends:
  • I’m grateful for these three teachers:
  • I’m grateful for these three family members:
  • I’m grateful for these three things in my home:

You can participate in an online gratitude journal as well. 

Need downloadable resources on grit and gratitude? Check out my FREE resources page.

You can find several FREE resources related to grit, resilience, gratitude, and well-being on my resources page. Check back often as I add things often. 

Research articles:

Datu, J. A. D., Buenconsejo, J. U., Valdez, J. P. M., & Tang, R. L. (2022). Gratitude and kindness at work as predictors of employees’ mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 1-12.
Feng, L., & Yin, R. (2021). Social support and hope mediate the relationship between gratitude and depression among front-line medical staff during the pandemic of COVID-19. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 623873.
Jiang, D. (2022). Feeling gratitude is associated with better well-being across the life span: A daily diary study during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 77(4), e36-e45.
Mead, J. P., Fisher, Z., Tree, J. J., Wong, P. T., & Kemp, A. H. (2021). Protectors of wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic: key roles for gratitude and tragic optimism in a UK-based cohort. Frontiers in Psychology, 2443.
Slavich, G. M., Roos, L. G., & Zaki, J. (2022). Social belonging, compassion, and kindness: Key ingredients for fostering resilience, recovery, and growth from the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 35(1), 1-8.


Smith, J. A., Newman, K. M., Marsh, J., & Keltner, D. (Eds.). (2020). The Gratitude Project: How the Science of  Thankfulness can Rewire our Brains for Resilience, Optimism, and the Greater Good. New Harbinger Publications.
Emmons, R 2016. The Little Book of Gratitude. Octopus Publishing Group.

Websites for more resources:

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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