Feeling Grateful May Help Us Sleep Better, Emerging Research Evidence
I’ve struggled with practicing gratitude. Even when we have a lot to feel grateful for, we have an evolutionary predisposition to feel discontent, to focus on improvement and acceleration instead of celebration. With my journaling practice, I am learning to pay attention to the positive aspects of my life, celebrate the small, daily wins, and regularly acknowledge moments of peace and happiness. Recent research suggests noticing reasons to feel grateful might help us sleep better. Below, we’ll overview some of this research and talk about how it might help improve our sleep health.
Sleep Quality Often Improves When People Practice Gratitude
Sleep quality is one facet of sleep health. Researchers measure sleep quality using many different methods, but our self-reported sleep quality is essentially how we feel about our sleep. An academic review found gratitude interventions were associated with better self-reported sleep quality outcomes (see this link for an example of a common measurement of sleep quality, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index). These positive outcomes occurred in five out of eight studies that the researchers included in their review. The included studies used gratitude interventions that involved journaling and listing things they were grateful for (e.g., people, events, circumstances). Gratitude interventions may be promising methods to improve sleep quality.
But the research mentioned above is not without limitation. The sleep quality measurements only included self-reported sleep metrics, which may not reflect objectively-measured sleep quality (e.g., a wrist-based monitor). Also, most of the research was done in a university setting with college students, which is not representative of the general population. More research with comprehensive sleep assessments and diverse participant samples is necessary to make any firm conclusions on the association between gratitude and sleep health.
How Could Gratitude Affect Our Sleep Quality?
The studies above provide evidence that a regular gratitude practice might improve self-reported sleep quality. Although more research needs to be done on this topic, let’s explore why researchers might be finding these associations.
The promising reason is that gratitude helps people focus on positive thoughts that promote high quality sleep. Before going to bed, participants reported higher positive thoughts and lower negative ones. These thoughts mediated, or explained, the link between gratitude and high quality sleep. Thus, one reason that gratitude may impact higher sleep quality is through more positive thinking (i.e., feel grateful -> think positively -> sleep well). A gratitude practice may help avoid negative cognitions and pre-sleep arousal that interfere with high sleep quality. For example, we may be less likely to ruminate and obsess over negative experiences when we feel positively from practicing gratitude. However, these ideas come with caveats that we’ll discuss below.
A less helpful, but possible, explanation is the positive bias that comes from practicing gratitude may influence people toward reporting their experiences as more positive. Thus, when they feel more grateful, they experience a general sense of positivity and report higher sleep quality. They may feel that they’re doing better in most aspects of their lives just because they’re feeling more grateful (e.g., feeling grateful to have slept at all). But, objective sleep quality metrics, including sleep duration and the percentage of time spent asleep throughout the night, may not show much change. We need more research in this area to better understand if gratitude contributes to comprehensive sleep health measurements. That said, you might still want to start a gratitude practice. Fortunately, it will only cost you a little bit of time and could possibly help you feel better about your sleep.
The bottom line is this: our thoughts influence how well we sleep. If we are able to acknowledge the positive aspects of our lives, through a gratitude practice or some other means, that acknowledgement may improve our sleep health.
This is not to say that we should pretend as if only positivity exists and ignore the many challenges that we all face. Working through more difficult ideas has its place. Personally, I often set aside time in the early mornings or longer thinking sessions on Sundays to sift through and process particularly thorny thoughts. Although this mental compartmentalization is difficult and not always possible, I try not to bring highly engaging or negative thoughts to bed with me.
- For a deeper dive into sleep quality, check out our previous discussions on sleep health and pre-sleep arousal.
- The thoughts expressed here are my opinion only. If you are consistently having sleep issues, I suggest seeing a trusted medical professional.
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