Counting your blessings isn't just good advice from mom or a dippy self-help suggestion; consciously practicing gratitude actually physically changes your brain, science shows. By pausing to say thank you, we strengthen the neural pathways of positivity, making it easier to see the good in life. Gratitude is basically an optimism workout.

Because of this reality and the towering stack of reputable studies that attest to the positive effects of gratitude on mental health, setting aside time to reflect on all that's going right in your life is one of the most popular happiness prescriptions. (Maybe you've noticed friends' doing a "gratitude challenge" on Facebook, for example).

These exercises are a great idea, but according to a new study there is an even better way to practice gratitude. Use this method to counting your blessings and you'll supercharge the happiness benefits.

How to maximize the benefits of your gratitude practice

For the study a group of Irish researchers asked nearly 200 participants to test out one of three types of happiness intervention. The first group kept a traditional gratitude journal where they noted down things they were thankful for each day.

The second bunch added a twist to this practice. At the end of each week they chose someone who appeared in their gratitude journal and thanked them in person, reflecting later in writing about the experience. The third group was a control who just journalled about whatever popped into their heads.

Who saw the biggest benefits? The folks who had actually gotten out and said thank you face to face. "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," reports the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center's write-up of the research.

This was true not only right after the experiment, but even a month later as well. And the benefits were strongest for those who started out with the lowest mood and the most symptoms of depression.

The bottom line for your everyday life couldn't be clearer (and you don't even have to spend a few bucks on a notebook to put it into practice). "When you feel thankful for someone, actually thank them!" the lead author of the study Brenda O'Connell urges anyone who would like to feel happier and more satisfied with their lives.

Have you thanked anyone today?