Research: Gratitude Writing Surprisingly Helpful Emotion Regulation Technique

By 5th February 2019 No Comments
gratitude resilience well-being workplace

Research provides loads of insights into simple techniques you can utilise in your workplace or school to help your staff or students raise their resilience and well-being. I cover a great many of these types of research-backed activities for enhancing resilience and well-being in both of my recently published books, Resilient Me and Anxiety Free.

Emotion regulation activities can be extremely helpful alongside deeper, lasting changes because they enable a person to quickly turn their emotions around from negative to positive when they need to be productive and/or ‘bring their A game’. Doing so in turn helps them to think more clearly because now their prefrontal cortex (the critical thinking, problem solving, decision making part of the brain) is working much more optimally. And when we are able to engage this part of our brain, well, we are able to communicate well with others and improve working relationships, more easily overcome challenges however unexpected, feel motivated and energetic and ‘get the job done’.

One such simple activity that has been found to boost one’s well-being is writing a letter of gratitude (Lyubomirsky & Layous 2013). More recently, in research conducted on 293 people undergoing psychotherapy (Wong et al. 2016), participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: psychotherapy only), psychotherapy plus expressive writing, and psychotherapy plus gratitude writing. In the gratitude group, participants wrote letters expressing gratitude to others, whilst those in the expressive writing condition wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings regarding stressful experiences.

Although at 3 weeks after the writing intervention there were no notable differences between the mental health states of the participants, at about 4 weeks and at 12 weeks after the conclusion of the writing intervention, those who had been randomly assigned to writing gratitude letters, reported significantly better mental health than those in the other two groups (psychotherapy only and psychotherapy combined with expressive writing). Little difference was seen between the other two groups in terms of mental health.

Furthermore, those in the gratitude letter writing group wrote proportionately fewer negative emotion words than those in the other two groups and this notable difference in language before psychotherapy had even been administered, predicted improved mental health 12 weeks after the writing intervention had been used.

Clearly, expressing gratitude for someone in the form of a letter, whether the letter is given to that person or not (only 23% delivered their letter to at least one recipient in this experiment) is effective in lifting a person’s well-being and mental health, and importantly, appears to create ongoing emotional buoyancy, so to speak. That writing three letters of gratitude for at least 20 minutes at a time can produce such lasting effects 12 weeks after such gratitude writing has been done, suggests three things could be at play here. One, the power of our thoughts to uplift or deflate our mental health (something that has been repeatedly demonstrated in research elsewhere). Two, the power of giving thanks to a fellow human being; we humans do, after all, gain happiness and resilience from giving (refs). Three, the power of maintaining a balanced perspective of what we do have to be grateful for; given the vast majority of us in the west have clothes on our back, food in our stomach, clean running water from taps, shelter and warmth, and no bombs exploding overhead.

Implementing This At Your Workplace

Should you want to try this at your place of work, here is how you might go about it. In the current study, across the three writing sessions:

1. Participants most commonly wrote gratitude letters to friends (28%, 35%, and 41%), mothers (31%, 22%, and 20%), and fathers (17%, 12%, and 9%), respectively.

2. They were given the option to send the letter to their intended recipients even though only 23% delivered their letter to at least one of their three recipients.

3. They were encouraged to write about how the person had impacted their life, describe specific things the person had done for them, and how they felt toward the person.

4. Participants were allowed to write to the same person three times or to different individuals in each letter.

5. They wrote for at least 20 minutes in each session and were allowed to use more time if they needed it.

How we angle the lens of our mind is important for our minute-to-minute and long-term resilience, well-being and mental health.

Ensuring you help your workforce or students to do the same, helps ensure their improved happiness, productivity, mental health, attendance, progression and more. We live in an overwhelming world; often it’s the simple tweaks to daily habits, maintained consistently, that create lasting positive changes to outcomes.

To find out more about how I can help you to build resilience and well-being within your workforce or students, get in touch for a confidential chat.



Lyubomirsky, S. and Layous, K. (2013). How Do Simple Positive Activities Increase Well-Being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1): 57–62

Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research,