Gratitude is the general acknowledgment of the good things in our lives and feeling thankful to have them. It usually involves recognizing the extent to which a very small number of things in our lives, often things that have no monetary value, contribute to our overall happiness and well-being.

Gratitude and your health

Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have conducted research on gratitude. In one study, they asked the participants to write a few sentences every week about specific topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week while a second group wrote about daily irritations or things that occurred that they didn’t like and a third wrote about events that had affected them (regardless of whether they were positive or negative). After 10 weeks, the group that wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives than the other groups. Interestingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of irritation.

Gratitude and happiness

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a different experiment where he examined the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people and compared each of them with a control group that completed an assignment involving writing about early memories. One of their weekly assignments was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who they had never properly thanked for their kindness. This resulted in a huge increase in happiness scores for the participants. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention and the benefits lasted for a month.

Although this research cannot prove cause and effect most of the studies in this area support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being

Gratitude and relationships

A study of couples found that individuals that took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship more generally.

Managers who remember to say “thank you” to the people that work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group called alumni to solicit donations in the same way they always had. The second group (on a different day) received a pep talk from the director of annual giving. She said that she was grateful for the fund-raisers efforts. During the following week, the university employees that received the pep talk with the gratitude message made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.

Author and researcher Dr. Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis professor, completed eight years of intensive research on gratitude and found that people who view life as a gift and consciously acquire an “attitude of gratitude” will experience multiple advantages. 

He says that gratitude improves emotional and physical health and can strengthen relationships and communities. He observed gratitude strategies that included keeping a gratitude journal, learning prayers of gratitude, and using visual reminders. 

“Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing, and impoverished,” said Emmons. “Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energizes, inspires, and transforms. People are moved, opened, and humbled through expressions of gratitude.” 

However, cultivating an attitude of gratitude is tough. Emmons says that it is a “chosen attitude.” His research also indicates that gratitude is not merely a positive emotion. It also improves your health if cultivated and suggests that people should give up a “victim mentality” and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness. As a result, they should experience significant improvements in several areas of life including relationships, energy levels, and even their ability to cope with tragedy and crisis.

Research has also suggested that feelings of gratitude may be beneficial to subjective emotional well-being. For example, Watkins et al and colleagues had participants test a number of different gratitude exercises, such as thinking about a living person for whom they were grateful, writing about someone for whom they were grateful, and writing a letter to deliver to someone for whom they were grateful. The participants in the control condition were asked to describe their living room. Participants that engaged in a gratitude exercise experienced more positive emotion immediately after the exercise and this effect was strongest for participants who were asked to think about a person for whom they were grateful. Participants who had grateful personalities to begin with showed the greatest benefit from these gratitude exercises. In people who are grateful in general, life events have little influence on experienced gratitude (McCullough, Tsang & Emmons, 2004).

This is an excerpt that summarizes the research conducted by Robert A. Emmons, University of California, Davis.

In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment:  Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal, and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.

A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).  There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.

Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.

In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.

Measuring the Grateful Disposition

Most people report being grateful (average rating of nearly 6 on a 7 point scale).

Well-Being:  Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress.  The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions.  Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.

Prosociality: People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others.  They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).

Spirituality:  Those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities such as prayer and reading religious material are more likely to be grateful.  Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment to and responsibility to others (McCullough et. al., 2002).

Materialism:  Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and others’ success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of wealthy persons, and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons.

Distinguishing Between Gratefulness and Indebtedness

In a narrative study, people who write about being indebted to others report higher levels of anger and lower levels of appreciation, happiness, and love relative to people who write about being grateful to others (Gray & Emmons, 2000).

The experience of indebtedness is less likely to lead to a desire to approach or make contact with others relative to an experience of gratefulness.  Thus, indebtedness tends to be an aversive psychological state that is distinct from gratitude.

Next article in this series: “Connecting To Nature”

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