Many people live their lives believing that the only way to be happy is to achieve some goal or acquire some possession (e.g., “I would be happy if only …”). Research suggests that happiness is actually more related to being grateful for what we already have than to getting new things. Gratitude isn’t just about expressing thanks to the people who have helped you. It’s about celebrating everything in your life that makes it worth living, and honoring those who help you be your best. Let’s take a look at how gratitude works, and what it can do for your life.
What is Gratitude?
What exactly does “gratitude” mean? Most of us associate gratitude with saying “thanks” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is more complex and has been categorized as an emotion, a mood, a moral virtue, a habit, a motive, a personality trait, a coping response, and even a way of life.
For instance, let’s unpack the emotional aspect of gratitude. Think about a time when you felt grateful. What feelings do you associate with this state? Most people describe the feeling as peaceful, warm, friendly, or joyful. People are unlikely to say that gratitude makes them feel burdened, stressed, or angry. The feeling is not one of obligation, but one of relief and collaboration. This small experiment illustrates that gratitude is a positive, desirable state, that people generally find enjoyable, but doesn’t precisely define it as an emotion. Gratitude is deeply linked with meaningful interactions and a positive outlook, but how does it work?
Two Stages of Gratitude
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude involves two stages (2003):
- First comes the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make it not just worth living, but rich with texture and detail. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, both by its presence and by the effort the giver put into choosing it.
- Second, gratitude is recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. At this stage, the object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world, but not to oneself. At this stage, we recognize not only the goodness in our lives, but who is to thank for it, and who has made sacrifices so that we could be happy.
The two stages of gratitude comprise the recognition first of the goodness in our lives, and then of the source of that goodness that lies outside of ourselves. By this process, we recognize everything and everyone that makes us who we are in our best moments.
The Effects of Gratitude
In a study by McCraty and colleagues (1998), 45 adults were taught to “cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions”. The results of this study showed that there was a mean 23% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol after the intervention period. Moreover, during the use of the techniques, 80% of the participants exhibited an increased coherence in heart rate variability patterns, indicating reduced stress. In other words, these findings suggest that people with an “attitude of gratitude” experience lower levels of stress.
In another study by Seligman, Steen, and Peterson (2005), participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of thanks in person to someone who had been especially kind to them, but who had never been properly thanked. The gratitude visit involves three basic steps:
First, think of someone who has done something important and wonderful for you, yet who you feel you have not properly thanked.
Next, reflect on the benefits you received from this person, and write a letter expressing your gratitude for all they have done for you.
Finally, arrange to deliver the letter personally, and spend some time with this person talking about what you wrote.
The results showed that participants who engaged in the letter-writing exercise reported more happiness for one month after the intervention compared to a control group. Expressing gratitude not only helps you to appreciate what you’ve received in life, it also helps you to feel that you’ve given something back to those who helped you. Hand-delivering a letter of thanks absolves you of any residual guilt you might feel for not having thanked this person previously, and fosters a sincere, heartfelt interaction that can really strengthen your relationship.
Expressing your thanks can really improve your overall sense of well-being: studies show that grateful people are more agreeable, more open, and less neurotic (McCullough et al., 2002; McCullough, Tsang, & Emmons, 2004; Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008; Wood, Maltby, Stewart, Linley et al., 2008). Furthermore, gratitude is related negatively to depression and positively to life satisfaction (Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2008).
Gratitude is also a powerful tool for strengthening interpersonal relationships. People who express their gratitude tend to be more willing to forgive others and less narcissistic (DeShea, 2003; Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998). Giving thanks to those who have helped you strengthens your relationships and promotes relationship formation and maintenance, as well as relationship connection and satisfaction (Algoe et al., 2008; Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010)
How to Train Gratitude
How can we practice being grateful in our everyday lives? One possible answer to this question exists in a study by McCullough, Emmons, and Tsang (2002). Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each participant completed an extensive daily journal in which they rated their moods, physical health, and overall judgments concerning how their lives were going.
Keeping a Journal
Every week for ten weeks, each participant kept a short journal. They either briefly described, in a single sentence, five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week (the gratitude condition), or they did the opposite, describing five daily irritants from the previous week (the hassles condition) that they were displeased about. The neutral group was simply asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them in the last week, but were not told to accentuate the positive or negative aspects of those circumstances (the events condition).
Those in the gratitude condition reported fewer health complaints and symptoms of physical illness, and even spent significantly more time exercising than control participants did (nearly 1.5 hours more per week than those in the hassles condition). This study demonstrates that being aware of the things that you are grateful for, even on a weekly basis, is enough to change your mindset for the better—which is actually great for your health.
Daily Gratitude Intervention
Reflecting on being grateful on a weekly basis can be very helpful, but, unsurprisingly, a daily intervention resulted in even more positive effects than did the weekly intervention (McCullough, Tsang, & Emmons 2004). The daily intervention resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy compared to a focus on daily hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).
Compared to participants who were instructed to focus on daily hassles or social comparisons, those who used the daily gratitude intervention were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another person. It would seem that gratitude enhances not only your personal well-being, but also your empathy for the people around you.
Apply it to Your Life
This very evening, before you go to sleep, simply think of the positive things that happened during the day; things that you are grateful for. Take a moment to do this every night. It’s not a bad idea to keep a gratitude journal to reflect on later. If you have children, take a moment with them before bed-time to ask them to think about something they’re grateful for themselves. Don’t forget to set a good example by sharing what you’re grateful for!
If you feel that you have neglected to thank someone for being especially kind or helpful, don’t focus on feeling bad about it. Just write them a letter explaining your gratitude and deliver it in person, if possible. If you can’t deliver the letter in person, send it via post or email; whatever you do, make sure you make the effort to reach out to the people who have helped you along your path. Not only will this strengthen your relationships, it will actually make you a happier person.
Robert Emmons on Cultivating Gratitude:
You might also like:
- The Link Between Happiness and Bodily Sensations
- Showing Your Gratitude to the Ones You Love
- Gratitude Exercise: The Can of White Heinz Beans
- Gratitude: A Deeper Appreciation
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McCraty, R., Barrios-Choplin, B., Rozman, D. , Atkinson, M. & Watkins, A. (1998). The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integrative Physiological & Behavioral Science, 32, 151-70.
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Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Maltby, J. (2008). Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: Incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 49–54.
Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 854–871.