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, was there a change in their 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.
What is Gratitude?
As it often happens in academia, Gratitude has a different meaning within positive psychology than what it mean in everyday life. For starters, 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 gratitude 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 psychologist contend that gratitude is more than feeling thankful for something, it is more like a deeper appreciation for someone (or something,) which produces more long lasting positivity.
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, 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 it works
Gratitude is a selfless act. Gratitude acts are done unconditionally to show that 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 love 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. Positive Psychology is a science, and as such positive psychology uses research to back up their claims; So, what does the research say about this?
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. In an experimental comparison study, researchers compared people who kept a gratitude journal (a journal with things people were thankful for each day), and those who did not. The group who kept a gratitude journal were more likely to exercise than people who did not. Also, because of their increased physical activity, participants in the gratitude group reported less physical ailment. There are more than just physical benefits to be reaped from gratitude. Incorporating gratitude into a person’s life can be psychologically beneficial, too. People who participated in gratitude exercises were found to be more prosocial than others. Prosocial behaviors are behaviors that promote other’s well being, usually through altruistic acts. In the study, people who were in the experiment group were more likely to help someone with a personal problem, or be more supportive emotionally.
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).
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 Action
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 what are ways to utilize 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.
1. Graditude Journal
As mentioned above, 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. In a study, Gratitude researchers had their participants record a number of things that they were grateful for on a day. After several entries have been recorded, they encouraged the owners to take a look back at their journal entries with an introspective attitude. 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.
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 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.
3. 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 normalized.
There is never a bad time to be gracious. Whether its 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. And really, is that really ever a bad thing? Please share your ways of showing gratitude to other people via the comments below!