“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a variety of things that can conjure positive feelings of appreciation, or gratitude.
A well thought out Thank You, instead of a half-hearted, “Thanks,” often leaves people feeling pretty good. Perhaps there was a moment that you can reflect on, that involved strong feelings of gratitude?
However big or small, thinking of a time you showed gratitude to someone, does it have an impact on your mood?
Positive psychology research contends that gratitude is an extremely important positive emotion.
Research has shown that acts of gratitude and gratitude exercises are not only beneficial to the people receiving the praise, but even more so, to the one who performs the act.
This article contains:
What is Gratitude? A Definition
As it often happens in academia, Gratitude has a different meaning within positive psychology than what it means in everyday life.
Most of us associate gratitude with saying “thank you” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is not just an action. Gratitude is a positive emotion, which is really important because it serves a purpose (read about the Broaden-and-Build Theory here.)
A common definition from modern dictionaries of gratitude is:
“the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”
That may capture the literal meaning of being gracious, but that does not come close to capturing the full concept of gratitude.
It has been defined by many people throughout history. Having different definitions for a word is not inherently wrong, but, as a science that has to have measure effects, positive psychology defines gratitude it in a way that shows that the effects of gratitude can be measured.
Positive psychologists contend that gratitude is more than feeling thankful for something, it is more like a deeper appreciation for someone (or something,) which produces longer lasting positivity.
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 Concept of Gratitude
So, why do positive psychology practitioners define gratitude differently from other theorists, besides the reason already covered? It’s critical to the way positive psychologists apply the meaning to their work. Gratitude can manifest itself in a physical form. These are called acts of gratitude, and in application gratitude exercises. Gratitude exercises serve many purposes.
Purpose of gratitude exercises
People can use gratitude to form new social relations, or to build upon and make current ones better.
Acts of gratitude can be used to apologize, make amends or help solve other problems people may face.
Alternatively, people may feel gracious because it can be an intrinsically rewarding process. Simply being grateful for being alive is a great way to motivate oneself to seize the day. The idea that tomorrow is not guaranteed is a strong motivator to some people.
Why Gratitude Works
Gratitude is a selfless act. Gratitude acts are done unconditionally to show to people that they are appreciated, not because people are looking for something in return; however, that is not to say that people do not return the favor. Gratitude can be contagious, in a good way.
One concept that fits well into the blueprint of gratitude is catharsis.
Catharsis is the process in which an individual releases strong emotions. For example, after a stressful or traumatic event, crying provides a means for such a strong release; thus, rendering the activity cathartic.
It is in a similar fashion that catharsis works with gratitude. To illustrate this, consider the following.
The guilt associated with failing to meet obligations may cause a person to show gratitude to another whom they have let down, in an attempt to release that guilt. The acts following that event are meant to show the deep appreciation that the friends have for each other.
Additionally, in a more solitary way, possessions left from passed loved ones may provide a sense of serenity that enables the new owner to reflect with gratitude on that object. The use of gratitude serves as an agent of catharsis, and both parties feel satisfied in the end. Which is a pretty good segue into the other reason that gratitude works.
The other possible explanation of how gratitude functions is reciprocity. Reciprocity, a concept that originated from social psychology, is about the exchanging of actions.
In regard to gratitude, it is the exchange of positive emotion. Someone performs an act of gratitude for another person, and in turn, that person may be motivated to do something gracious for the former person, or continue the favor for a stranger.
After all, acts of gratitude aren’t only for people that you know! A common contemporary phrase that people are familiar with is, “paying it forward.”
Though, paying it forward does not obligate you to reciprocate if you cannot, but it does spread positivity via gratitude.
Trait or state?
Gratitude is regarded as either a trait (dispositional) or state. As a trait an individual practices gratitude as part of their daily life (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002), gratitude is also considered a character strength, which if not among the top character strengths of an individual, can be developed (Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).
The emotion a person experiences from another individual’s expression of gratitude is referred to as state (Watkins, Van Gelder, & Frias, 2009).
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.
Social Effects of Gratitude
Gratitude can be observed at an individual level, with its subsequent effects, or at a greater social level.
Research has shown that the practice of gratitude can create a greater social circle of good.
The recipient of gratitude may not reciprocate directly back, but in turn, may lend a favour to a third party, effectively expanding a network of good (Chang, Lin, & Chen, 2011).
This research supports Fredrickson’s (2004a,b) broaden and build theory, which posits expanding social networks, to build better social support. Effectively gratitude can therefore create a social network which can help individuals both advance (career, goals) and better cope in life.
Gratitude in Relationships
In a romantic relationship, both partners take actions to please the other one. This can elicit several emotions such as gratitude and indebtedness.
Algoe et al. (2010) looked into these two emotions that are characterized as an emotional response to a costly and intentionally provided benefit.
Also, gratitude and indebtedness are associated with the intention to repay for the received benefit. Gratitude leads to an internal motivation, and indebtedness to an external motivation to reciprocate.
Algoe et al. (2010) asked sixty-seven couples to keep a diary for two weeks. The participants had to record their own and their partner’s thoughtful actions, their emotions, and their relationship well-being.
By coupling the data of the two partners, they were able to see whether a thoughtful action of the participant was recognized by the partner and if he or she acknowledged the action accordingly.
Algoe et al. (2010) found that a partner’s thoughtful action predicted an increase in feelings of gratitude and indebtedness.
However, only feeling gratitude, not indebtedness, on one day predicted an increase in relationship well-being of the participant the next day.
When these feelings of gratitude are noticed by the partner, the relationship well-being of the partner also increases.
It is possible to do the same exercise from the research with couples who want to improve their relationship.
Let both partners keep a diary for a week or two and discuss the answers in the next consult. Did they recognize and acknowledge what their partner did for them? How did it make them feel?
By practicing the partners can become more aware of the thoughtful actions of their partner and respond to them with gratitude. This exercise can induce an upward spiral and improve the relationship well-being; it can be a powerful gratitude intervention for partners in a romantic relationship.
How to Train Gratitude: 4 Gratitude Exercises
So, research has shown that there are advantages to including gratuitous habits into a person’s life, but what does everyday application look like and in what ways can we use gratitude effectively?
Below are examples of ways to maximize gratitude in an everyday situation. You can also dive right into these 5 gratitude exercises for improving mental well-being.
Keeping a Journal
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.
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.
Gratitude journals are great ways to record events that happened in the day that are worthy of gratitude. It is impossible to remember every event of every day, and some days are better than others.
Here is the link to one type of format. Although, journals do not have to look like this worksheet, they can be plain notebooks, or whatever is most comfortable.
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.
If solitude is not your thing, there are ways to be social about gratitude. The expression of gratitude via a blog is always an option.
This is similar to a gratitude journal, but it allows for more freedom than a gratitude journal. Gratitude journals are typically left in private, whereas blogs have a more accessible aspect. It can be really powerful, too.
But don’t take it from me, take it from someone who has experience in it. Brian Doyle, a up-and-coming, grateful, young professional shares his experiences that led to him starting a blog all about gratitude and how to express it to people in his life.
The blog has changed his life. For those who are curious about his project, 365 Days of Thank You, then feel free to click the link to look at it.
Just Let Them Know
Finally, there is simply telling someone directly, “Hey! I’m thankful for you and all you do. Thanks for being such an amazing person!” It’s really that simple.
Whatever form of communication that is most comfortable, choose that and let people know that they are valued.
Pretty soon, it’ll start a chain reaction of people showing their gratitude, and slowly it may even start to be common practice.
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:
For some reason, gratitude as a positive emotion has, in the past, not been researched as extensively as other emotions; however, that does not seem to be the case anymore.
In fact, gratitude is currently one of the hottest topics in positive emotion research. Research on the topic of gratitude has shown many types of benefits that are not limited to only psychological well-being.
Here is an overview of the recent research findings related to the study of gratitude:
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)
Dr. Emmons and Dr. McCullough have done extensive research into the effects of gratitude practices. In one study in 2003 they found that after 10 weeks, the people who had focused on gratitude in their lives, showed significantly more optimism in many areas of their lives, including health and exercise.
Toepfer, Cichy and Peters (2011) conducted a study where people were asked to write and deliver a letter to someone for whom they were grateful. Right after the task their the happiness levels and life satisfaction were dramatically impacted even weeks later. In the pursuit of happiness and life satisfaction, gratitude is showing a direct and long lasting effect thus the more gratitude we experience the happier our lives will be.
Stronger Self Control
Self Control helps us to be disciplined and focused and to persist with what is subjectively the most important for our long term well being. At some point we all learn that even though we may want that big piece of chocolate cake with sugary frosting and big glass of ice cold milk at 10pm, making that choice is going to have consequences.
Self control comes into play in these moments and hopefully we make the better choice for our long term health, financial future and wellbeing.
A study by DeSteno et al. in 2014 found that self control significantly increased when subjects chose gratitude over happiness and feeling neutral. One of the study’s authors, Professor Ye Li, said:
“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercises opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”
Just sit back and imagine the applications of this research. The potential for a happier and healthier world may lie in a positive emotion as simple as gratitude. Being thankful can give us the resolve we need to make better choices in our lives and for the ones we love in the most significant ways.
Better Physical and Mental Health
Without our physical health we cannot truly experience and enjoy all that life has to offer. Here, yet again gratitude it playing a valuable role in influencing one of our most fundamental human needs, that of health.
Recent research performed in 2015 showed that patients with heart failure, who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep and better moods thus dramatically reducing their symptoms heart failure after only 8 weeks.
We all know there is a link between the mind and body and here is gratitude has a double benefit! The feeling of appreciation when we are grateful, helps us to have healthier minds and with that healthier bodies. It seems that gratitude it opening yet another door into the world of health. What more could we ask for?
An Overall a Better Life
In researching Gratitude, Thankfulness, and Appreciation over the last 2 decades, I feel very confident in saying that this practice significantly increases our overall well being, happiness, and health and the evidence is there to prove it.
Now consider this quote from the Wall Street Journal’s article “Thank you, No, Thank you.”
“…adults who feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics.” – Melinda Beck
A Take Home Message
There is never a bad time to be gracious. Whether it’s because of someone or something, the important thing is, channeling the positive emotion of gratitude. It is such a powerful emotion that it needs to be shared.
An attitude of gratitude can fight stress through catharsis, leaving people feeling better, and that means they can foster reciprocity, spreading their happiness to other.
The ideas featured in this article are just a few among many that can help bring gratitude into your life.
If you come across an idea, or perhaps think of your own, don’t hesitate to spread the goodwill.
Please share your ways of showing gratitude to other people via the comments below!
- Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L. & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It's the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 217-233. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.
- Algoe, S. B., Haidt, J., & Gable, S. L. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion, 8, 425–429.
- Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior helping when it costs you. Psychological science, 17(4), 319-325.
- DeShea, L. (2003). A scenario-based scale of willingness to forgive. Individual Differences Research, 1, 201–217.
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.
- Farwell, L., & Wohlwend-Lloyd, R. (1998). Narcissistic processes: Optimistic expectations, favorable self-evaluations, and self-enhancing attributions. Journal of Personality, 66, 65–83.
- McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. A. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112–127.
- McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J. -A., & Emmons, R. A. (2004). Gratitude in intermediate affective terrain: Links of grateful moods to individual differences and daily emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 295–309.
- 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.
- Popova, Maria. "A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression from Martin Seligman, Founding Father of Positive Psychology." Brain Pickings RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.
- Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
- 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.
- Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L. & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It's the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 217-233. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.