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The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratus, which means “thankful, pleasing.” Therefore, in its most simple form, to be grateful is to have appreciation and express thankfulness. However, there is more to gratitude than perhaps first meets the eye. What is clear, however, is that ‘counting your blessings’ has a multitude of positive effects, including promoting loving feelings and happiness.
Research into the area of gratitude is still, in many respects, in its’ early days. However, there is already a wide range of interesting findings waiting for us to delve into in this article. Please enjoy learning more about the research on gratitude, and for your convenience – as well as a comprehensive reference list – 12 interesting articles are recommended.
This article contains:
- The Psychology of Gratitude
- What the Research Shows About Gratitude
- Interesting Studies
- Is There a Link Between Gratitude and Happiness?
- The Research on Love and Gratitude
- Does Gratitude Promote Well Being?
- 5 Proven Health Benefits of Gratitude
- Organizational Studies on Gratitude in the Workplace
- Generosity, Kindness, and Gratitude
- A Look at Gratitude and Recovery
- The Relationship Between Humility and Gratitude
- Is Gratitude a Virtue?
- The Gratitude Scale(s)
- 8 Interesting Facts and Statistics on Gratitude
- 12 Recommended Articles
- A Take Home Message
The Psychology of Gratitude
What is gratitude? This is not really agreed upon! Gratitude has been conceptualized as
“an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, or a coping response” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003, p. 377).
Basically, a person is likely to feel grateful if they perceive that they have a positive personal outcome that they have either not earned, or are deserving of, as a result of the actions of another person (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Emotions can be looked at in terms of an affective trait or, the likelihood that an individual is to experience a particular emotion. Watkins, Woodward, Stone and Kolts (2003) suggest that
“the affective trait of gratitude may be thought of as a predisposition to experience gratitude” (p. 432).
Thus, even though a grateful person may not be feeling grateful in any particular moment, overall, they are more likely to experience gratitude. Watkins and colleagues (2003) argue that the science of gratitude – i.e. the psychology of gratitude – should look at both the ‘state’ of gratitude and ‘trait’ gratitude.
Grateful affect can be defined as
“a feeling of thankful appreciation for favors received” (Guralnik, 1971, p. 327 as cited in Watkins et al., 2003).
On the other hand, trait gratitude is
“a predisposition to experience the state of gratitude” (Watkin et al, 2003, p. 432).
Watkins and colleagues suggest that grateful individuals would have 4 characteristics:
- They would not feel deprived in life
- They would appreciate others’ contributions to their well-being
- They would tend to appreciate simple pleasures (in other words, pleasurable things that are freely available to the majority of people): if an individual appreciates simple pleasures, they are likely to experience grateful feelings more often due to frequently being appreciative of commonly occurring experiences.
- Finally, grateful individuals acknowledge the important role of experiencing and expressing gratitude.
In thinking about the psychology of gratitude, and what gratitude ‘looks like’ research suggests that gratitude involves having a distinctive view of the world. In other words, it is a propensity to look at life in a particular way. Similar to other constructs, yet also distinct, the psychology of gratitude sees an awareness and noticing of the positive things in life (Wood, Froh, & Gerghty, 2010).
What’s more, as well as a grateful individual noticing the positive things in life, grateful individuals show an appreciation of those things – even the small things that other people may simply take for granted (Wood et al., 2010). Research into the psychology of gratitude is still relatively new, so undoubtedly the burgeoning research into gratitude as both a state and a trait will contribute to a better understanding of what is, in fact, a cornerstone of positive psychology.
What the Research Shows About Gratitude
There is a growing body of research into the area of gratitude. Research has suggested that, unlike an earlier view of what gratitude looks like, in fact it is more than simply an interpersonal appreciation of someone’s help (Wood et al., 2010). Rather, according to research by Wood and colleagues, gratitude can be seen as a ‘life orientation’ – or, in other words, a worldview whereby feelings of gratitude stem from noticing and appreciating the positive things in life (Wood et al., 2010). Research has also suggested that there is a ‘grateful trait’, too, and that is can be measured reliably (Watkins, Woodward, Stone & Kolts, 2003).
Research looking at measuring gratitude (more on this later in the article!) assesses 8 distinct aspects of gratitude:
- Individual differences in the experience of positive affect
- Appreciation of other people
- A focus on what a person has
- Feelings of awe when encountering beauty
- Behaviors to express gratitude
- An appreciation rising from understanding that life is short
- A focus on the positive in the present moment, and
- Positive social comparisons (Wood et al., 2010).
- Broadly speaking, research into individual differences of gratitude has looked at 4 key areas:
- Relationships between gratitude and other personality traits
- Various indicators of well-being
- Gratitude and social relationships and socially facilitative behaviour, and
- Physical health (Wood et al., 2010)
- Let’s look at these aspects in a little more detail.
Research generally looks at how gratitude relates to the Big Five personality traits. Research has shown that gratitude is correlated with personality traits associated with positive emotional functioning, lower dysfunction, and positive social relationships (Wood et al., 2010).
Research into gratitude and well-being has focused on 4 key areas which I will now look into. The first is psychological pathology. Being thankful has been shown to predict significantly lower risk of a range of diagnoses including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, drug “abuse” or dependence, and the risk of bulimia nervosa (Wood et al., 2010).
The second aspect of well-being looked at involves emotional functioning. This is looked into from a subjective well-being approach. Gratitude is associated with high positive affect, low negative affect, and a high satisfaction with life. A number of studies have found that gratitude is associated with subjective well-being (more on this, later, too!) (Wood et al., 2010).
The third component of well-being that gratitude research has looked at is existential conceptions of gratitude. It has been found that gratitude is linked to psychological, or ‘eudaimonic’ wellbeing – which is a sense that one’s life has meaning, and that a person is living their life to the fullest (Wood et al., 2010). A couple of research studies have linked gratitude to eudaimonic wellbeing.
The final area which research into the relationship between gratitude and well-being is ‘humanistic conceptions’. This research has found that gratitude is strongly and positively correlated with ‘authentic’ living and negatively correlated with self-alienation (Wood et al., 2010). Some researchers have argued that gratitude serves an evolutionary purpose because it facilitates humans’ tendency to cooperate with non-family members (Wood et al., 2010).
Individual differences in gratitude in terms of relationships show that gratitude is associated with the perceived quality of relationships (Wood et al., 2010). Gratitude relates to one’s willingness to forgive others. Furthermore, it seems to strengthen relationships and contribute to relationship connection and satisfaction (Wood et al., 2010). Some studies have also found that gratitude may even promote conflict resolution and foster reciprocally helpful behaviour (in other words, ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’) (Wood et al., 2010).
This aspect of gratitude is discussed in some detail later in this article! The influence of gratitude on health remains a somewhat understudied area (Wood et al., 2010). Some studies have looked at gratitude and stress – such researchers have concluded that gratitude may relate to state of health more generally through stress as a mechanism (Wood et al., 2010). There is a developing body of knowledge regarding the relationship between gratitude and other health variables, including sleep… more on this later!
Even though research into gratitude is, relatively speaking, still in its infancy there have been some interesting studies which I will now share.
The first study is one by Wood, Maltby and Gillett and colleagues (as cited in Wood et al., 2010). These researchers looked at gratitude in first year undergraduate students beginning University. Gratitude was assessed at the start and the end of their first term (a period of approximately three months). This particular life transition is of interest because it is associated with challenges to well-being – some students find the experience positive, whilst others may find it especially stressful or even depressing. The researchers found that students who were higher in gratitude were less stressed, less depressed and had higher perceived social support at the end of the first term. The study findings suggest that gratitude may foster resilience in a period of life transition (Wood et al., 2010).
The next study looks at sleep; it was conducted by Wood, Joseph, Lloyd and Atkins in 2009. The researchers looked at whether, after controlling for neuroticism, and other personality traits, individual differences in gratitude are associated with sleep. This is because other personality traits, including neuroticism, have been found to be related to impaired sleeping.
A key area of this study was a focus on ‘pre-sleep cognitions’ – the thoughts that people have just before sleep. Increased pre-sleep cognitions, along with negative pre-sleep cognitions, cause impaired sleep.
The study included 401 adult participants (18 – 68 years). It was found that higher scores on the gratitude measure, the GQ-6 (more details about this scale later!), were associated with better sleep quality and negatively correlated with 6 measures of impaired sleep. Gratitude was also associated with more positive sleep cognitions. Gratitude still significantly predicted total sleep quality when the effects of the Big 5 and social desirability were controlled.
This study showed that positive pre-sleep cognitions acted to mediate the relationship between gratitude and subjective sleep quality, sleep duration, sleep latency and sleep efficiency. Therefore, Wood and colleagues (2009) concluded that grateful people are more likely to think positive, rather than negative and worrying, thoughts when falling asleep which led them to have a better night’s sleep!
McCullough, Emmons and Tsang (2002) conducted 4 studies looking at psychological domains and gratitude. The three particular psychological domains they studied were emotionality/wellbeing, pro-sociality, and spirituality/religiousness. They found that examination of these three aspects of psychology could differentiate between grateful individuals and those who are less grateful.
The study showed that grateful individuals experience more positive emotions, are more satisfied with life, and experience fewer negative emotions including depression, anxiety and envy. Perhaps not surprisingly, more grateful people also tend to be more pro-socially oriented. They are more likely to be empathic, forgiving, helpful and supportive than those who are less grateful. They are less focused on attaining materialistic goals.
An interesting finding from McCullough et al.’s (2002) study was that those who show more gratefulness also tend to be more spiritually and religiously minded.
The next study was carried out by Bartlett and DeSteno in 2006. They looked at pro-social behaviour and gratitude. It was found that a grateful individual was more likely to exert greater effort to help a benefactor (i.e. someone who has helped the individual in some way through a pro-social act) on a completely unrelated task – such as filling in a lengthy, boring survey – than ungrateful people.
Furthermore, the beneficiaries of a pro-social act who were more grateful were also more inclined to help a stranger who had not helped them compared to individuals who were not grateful. This particular finding appears to indicate that the effect of gratitude on motivating pro-social behaviour is not simply an effect of the ‘norm of reciprocity’. The norm of reciprocity refers to an unsaid ‘rule’ that one should return help for the help that is received.
The final study, which I found particularly interesting, looked at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and ‘post traumatic growth’. It was carried about by Kashdan, Uswatte and Julian in 2006. They looked into the role of gratitude in PTSD in a sample made up of 42 individuals diagnosed with PTSD and 35 ‘comparison’ veterans (Wood et al., 2010). It was actually found that gratitude is substantially lower in people with PTSD. The authors found that gratitude was related to self-esteem and positive affect as examined in a diary study, and that this was above the effects of symptomatology (Wood et al., 2010).
Post traumatic growth refers to an interesting phenomenon whereby some people, in addition to the intense suffering they experience, may gain some benefit from overcoming trauma (Wood et al, 2010). What’s more, it has been suggested that gratitude may play a key role in this process. Such individuals report benefits such as “living life to the full”, having enhanced appreciation for family and friends, and valuing each day more.
Together, these interesting studies shed light on exciting research into gratitude.
Is There a Link Between Gratitude and Happiness?
Surely, being appreciative for our blessings can make us happier… in fact, research on gratitude has shown that it is associated with positive emotions including contentment, happiness, pride and hope (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Although similar, gratitude can nevertheless be distinguished from happiness.
According to C.S. Lewis, praise (which is a verbal expression of gratitude) enhances the experience of enjoying benefits (Watkins, Woodward, Stone & Kolts, 2003). Therefore, experiences of gratitude should result in taking pleasure from the benefits in life… and, according to Lewis’ reasoning, the experience and expression of gratitude should enhance subjective well-being and therefore, that people who are disposed to gratitude should also feel happier (Watkins et al., 2003). More about well-being soon!
Gratitude is consistently showed to be significantly associated with greater happiness (Simon, n.d.). Why? Well, for starters, gratitude increases experiences of positive emotions and it also helps people to take pleasure from positive experiences. Furthermore, gratitude is associated with better physical health which is a contributing factor to happiness (Simon, n.d.). Gratitude also helps people cope with adversity and to develop and maintain strong relationships.
Happiness is associated with being grateful (i.e. satisfied) with what one has, and focusing more on the positives in life. Furthermore, emotions are adaptable so sometimes we may become numb to what makes us happy… a dose of appreciation for our blessings can help us again feel happy.
The Research on Love and Gratitude
Emmons and McCullough (2003) went so far as to say that gratitude is actually a form of love… a result of existing attachments and also a causal factor of new bonds… however, what does the research have to say about love and gratitude?
To begin with, bringing people’s awareness to benefits that they have received from others results in them feeling loved and cared for by other people (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). In romantic relationships, feelings of intimacy and closeness are influenced by the perception of a partner’s responsiveness to an individual’s wishes and needs (Algoe, Gable and Maisel, 2010). Gratitude also has the effect of promoting an individual’s focus on the positive qualities of their partner, along with being aware of their partner’s needs and wishes (Algoe et al., 2010).
Trust, Romance, and Gratitude
Theory on gratitude puts forward the argument that gratitude may not even be necessary or useful in romantic relationships because such relationships are already characterized by the expression of trust and the provision of benefits (Algoe et al., 2010). However, based on the evidence, Algoe and colleagues (2010) suggest that gratitude is a meaningful indicator of communal relationship orientation, and therefore that gratitude should also have the effect of facilitating romantic relationships. Let’s look at some evidence…
Algoe et al. (2010) looked at 67 cohabiting heterosexual couples who had been in a romantic relationship for at least 3 months. The romantic partners completed a diary at night for a period of 2 weeks, and in the diary, they recorded their own and their partner’s thoughtful actions, their emotional response to interactions with their partner, and that day’s relationship well-being. Gratitude was predicted by perception of the partner’s thoughtful behaviors, and also predicted by perceptions of the partners’ thoughtful actions (Algoe et al., 2010).
It was concluded that in close relationships, gratitude serves to remind individuals of the quality of the relationship with the benefactor, and to make the recipient feel close and connected to the benefactor (Algoe et al., 2010). However, if a person feels indebted to their romantic partner this does not improve feelings about the relationship they have and may even have a negative impact on the relationship. The previous day’s gratitude from interactions was also found to predict feelings of relationship connection (Algoe et al., 2010).
Making Thoughtful Gestures
Algoe et al. (2010) found that a romantic partner’s thoughtful gesture on a particular day led to increased feelings of both gratitude and indebtedness. However, the study showed that only feelings of gratitude predicted increased feelings of relationship quality. Gratitude was associated with increased relationship quality for both romantic partners.
Another study, by Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult and Keijsers in 2011 (as cited in Nicholson, 2011) looked at the effects of gratitude on loving “relationship maintenance” behaviors. The results showed that when a spouse was responsive to their partner, this led to feelings of gratitude (not surprisingly!). This gratitude then motivates partners to behave in a similar, responsive way. Then, like a snow-ball effect, the perception of the reciprocal behavior of the partner fosters more gratitude in the other partner as well. This results in the development of a positive cycle with an increase in both gratitude and caring behavior for both spouses (Nicholson, 2011).
The feeling, as well as the expression, of gratitude creates good relationship interactions. Furthermore, expressions of gratitude motivate a partner’s future loving behavior (Nicholson, 2011).
Does Gratitude Promote Well-Being?
Firstly, to begin the discussion of gratitude and well-being, a brief point about psychological versus subjective well-being. Whilst psychological well-being and subjective well-being are correlated, subjective well-being (commonly also thought of as ‘happiness’) looks at the experience of pleasant, positive emotions whereas psychological wellbeing is concerned with living a meaningful life of constructive activity and growth (Wood, Joseph & Maltby, 2009).
So, does gratitude promote wellbeing? Let’s start by looking at a study by Wood, Joseph and Maltby in 2009. They looked at whether gratitude is associated with all psychological wellbeing variables and whether or not gratitude has a unique relationship with psychological wellbeing, or whether in fact this association is due to the effect of the ‘Big 5’ personality factors.
Relationship With The Big Five
It has been shown that gratitude is positively correlated with the facets of extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness, and negatively correlated with neuroticism (Wood et al., 2009). The Big 5 are also correlated with psychological well-being – thus Wood and colleagues pose the question as to whether gratitude is therefore related to psychological well-being due to the ‘third variable’ effects of the Big 5. They also looked at whether gratitude can predict any outcomes besides the effects of the Big 5.
Wood et al. (2009) looked at 201 undergraduate university students who completed three online measures: The Gratitude Questionnaire 6 (GQ-6), 18 item scales of psychological well-being, and the NEO-PIR. They found that gratitude was associated with a number of psychological well-being variables (including personal growth, positive relationships, purpose in life, and self-acceptance) independent of the effects of the 30 facets of the Big 5. Therefore, Wood and colleagues concluded that gratitude may be uniquely important to psychological well-being, rather than simply due to the Big 5 traits.
A key determining factor of well-being is the ability to notice, appreciate and savor the elements of one’s life (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Research by Emmons and McCullough (2003) looked into whether, compared to focusing on complaints or neutral life events, actively being grateful can lead to improved physical and psychological functioning. The research was comprised of three studies:
- Study one involved 192 participants in three different conditions. The first condition saw people reflect on gratitude-inducing experiences, the second looked at the experience of hassles and the third looked at simply recalling events. All three conditions involved the participants submitting weekly reports. The gratitude group experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness and spent significantly more time exercising. Grateful reactions to being helped was also associated with more favorable overall evaluations of wellbeing. The group that focused on gratitude inducing experiences also felt more positive about their lives as a whole, and had more optimistic expectations for the week ahead (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
- The second study included 157 participants who completed 16 daily experience rating forms. The conditions in this study were gratitude, hassles, and downward social comparisons. The results were taken from 13 days, and showed that people in the gratitude condition had a higher level of positive affect over the period of the study. What’s more, this group was also more likely to have helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another person (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
- Finally, the third study looked at 65 people with either a congenital or adult-onset neuromuscular disorder, and posed the question as to whether a gratitude intervention could effectively improve well-being. During the 21-day study period, the gratitude condition fostered daily positive affect and also reduced daily negative affect. The gratitude group reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimistic about the week ahead, felt more connected to others, got more sleep and better quality sleep. The effects on the individuals’ well-being were even apparent to others (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Looking at the three studies, the researchers concluded that an effective way to produce reliably higher levels of positive emotion and improve well-being is to write, daily, about the aspects of life that one is grateful for (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
To conclude this discussion on whether gratitude promotes well-being (it does!) a final point. Wood and colleagues (2010) suggest that a part of well-being results from how people interpret the events of their life – low well-being has been associated with attributions such as that any success was uncontrollable, short-lived and a result of the actions of others. In this case, if gratitude was simply a result of interpersonal appreciation, a grateful individual would therefore attribute success to the actions of another – and, therefore, the grateful individual would be expected to have impaired well-being (Wood et al., 2010). This is not the case! Thus, the relationship between gratitude and well-being offers support to Wood et al.’s (2010) description of gratitude as a particular life orientation.
5 Proven Health Benefits of Gratitude
1. Gratitude improves sleep
Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep quality, decrease the amount of time needed to fall asleep, and increase sleep duration (Happier Human, 2018). As was discussed earlier, pre-sleep cognitions are the important factor in the relationship between gratitude and sleep.
In a study of 65 individuals with a chronic pain condition, those who completed a daily gratitude journal each night reported half an hour more sleep than the control group (Happier Human, 2018). In a study of 400 healthy individuals, higher scores on a gratitude test were significantly correlated with better sleep (Happier Human, 2018). Also, those participants who scored more highly on the gratitude measure also fell asleep faster, had better quality sleep, had increased sleep duration and had less trouble staying awake throughout the day (Happier Human, 2018).
2. Gratitude can strengthen your physiological well-being
Gratitude has been found to result in better coping and management of terminal conditions such as cancer and HIV, as well as faster recovery from particular medical procedures and positive changes in immune system functioning (Happier Human, 2018). It is associated with more positive health behavior, and has been found to lead to less pain (Happier Human, 2018). Other benefits of gratitude include less frequent visits to the doctor, lower blood pressure, and decreased likelihood of developing a mental health disorder (Happier Human, 2018). Great reasons to keep counting your blessings!
Although not technically ‘proven’ to be the case, the evidence suggests that gratitude may lead to a longer life. This is because optimism and positive emotion have been used to successfully predict mortality decades later, and gratitude is strongly correlated with positive emotion (Happier Human, 2018).
4. Gratitude increases your energy levels
Grateful people are much more likely to report physical and mental vigor (Happier Human, 2018). One study of 238 people found a correlation of .46 between vitality and gratitude (Happier Human, 2018). Another large study, of 1662 people, also found correlations greater than .3 between vitality and gratitude after controlling for levels of extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and perceived social desirability (Happier Human, 2018).
5. Gratitude increases the likelihood of physical activity
It is now common understanding that exercise provides a huge benefit to both physical and psychological health. Gratitude makes people more likely to exercise. It was found, in an 11-week study of 96 Americans, that those who were instructed to keep a weekly gratitude journal spent an extra 40 minutes exercising than the control group (Happier Human, 2018).
Keeping these health benefits in mind, it is certainly seeming the case that practicing gratitude has widespread and ongoing effects on our lives.
Organizational Studies on Gratitude in the Workplace
Research has been somewhat lacking in the area of gratitude in the organizational context, and in how gratitude is related to workplace well-being (such as job satisfaction) (Waters, 2012). Emmons suggested, in 2003, that there was little research evidence regarding gratitude in organizations. However, since then some research has taken place.
Waters (2012) examined job satisfaction and gratitude in a sample of 171 employees working in two different sectors (teaching and finance). Waters (2012) defined institutionalized gratitude as
“gratitude that is culturally embedded within the organization, through its people, policies, and practices, such that thankfulness and appreciation are customary features of daily work life” (p. 1174).
Job satisfaction was found to be significantly correlated with dispositional gratitude, state gratitude, and institutional gratitude (Waters, 2012). Dispositional gratitude was not a significant predictor of job satisfaction when state gratitude and institutionalized gratitude were accounted for. Waters (2012) suggests that this may be as a result of these factors being more localised and situated in the work context, and therefore they may be more proximal when employees assessed how much pleasure they derived from work which led to minimization of the role that dispositional gratitude plays in job satisfaction.
The finding that state gratitude was significantly related to job satisfaction provides support for the argument that leaders in organizations could regularly prompt grateful emotions in order to increase employees’ job satisfaction (Waters, 2012).
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Prosocial Behavior
Corporate social responsibility refers, briefly, as organizations demonstrating socially responsible behaviors. It may be considered a pro-social behavior. As has been previously discussed, gratitude is associated with prosocial behavior (Andersson, Giacalone & Jurkiewicz, 2007) So, whilst, if gratitude is associated with prosocial behavior, individuals who are more grateful should display greater corporate social responsibility. Hope also plays a role – individuals must have a positive motivation state to accomplish a goal. Hope is associated with both a feeling of agency to accomplish a goal and having the pathways to achieve the goal (Andersson et al., 2007). Andersson and colleagues investigated the impact of hope and gratitude on corporate social responsibility. It was expected that the impact of gratitude would be moderated by hope.
Andersson et al. (2007) conducted a study of a total of 308 white-collar employees. At time one, respondents’ hope and gratitude was measured, as well as the collection of demographic details. Hope was assessed by the 12-item Adult Dispositional Hope Scale and the respondents also completed the Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6). At time two, the researchers measured ethics and social responsibility (Andersson et al., 2007).
It was found that high hope and increasing levels of gratitude were associated with increased levels of concern for social responsibility (Andersson et al., 2007). Levels of concern for corporate social responsibility were associated with increasing levels of gratitude – even when there were low levels of hope. The research suggests that in the area of ethics and philanthropy, the importance of socially responsible actions can be impacted by the interaction of hope and gratitude (Andersson et al., 2007). The authors do note, however, that this finding does not apply to economic and legal responsibilities.
Andersson and colleagues (2007) concluded that “respondents who were more grateful and see that planning can meet such goals were more likely to be in agreement with social responsibility, regardless of their agency” (p. 407). Even though the results were significant, the positive psychological constructs play a small role – a considerable amount of the variance in the corporate social responsibility behaviour remains unaccounted for (Andersson et al., 2007). Furthermore, this particular study cannot claim that hope and gratitude are necessarily associated with socially responsible behaviors, as opposed to attitudes (Andersson et al., 2007).
Gratitude and Subjective Well-being At Work
Another study of gratitude in the workplace was carried out by Chan in 2010. Chan looked at 96 Chinese school teachers who were working in Hong Kong. The study included an 8-week gratitude intervention program with the outcome measure of subjective well-being. The results were that there was a significant positive correlation between dispositional gratitude and a meaningful life orientation to happiness and personal accomplishment (Chan, 2010). On the other hand, it was found that dispositional gratitude was significantly negatively correlated with two negative aspects of burnout – emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (Chan, 2010).
In Chan’s study, the gratitude intervention was associated with increases in measures of satisfaction with life and on positive affect. The gratitude intervention saw employees use a weekly gratitude list alongside Naiken meditation questions… however, a limitation of the research was that the teachers completed the intervention at home, rather than at work.
Howell, 2012 (as cited in Waters, 2012) conducted an organizationally based gratitude intervention over the course of one year. The intervention involved teachers from two schools meeting each week as a ‘gratitude group’. The teachers would meet weekly in the staffroom and explore gratitude. This qualitative study showed that the teachers who took part in the intervention had increased wellbeing and enhanced relationships.
Generosity, Kindness and Gratitude
Gratitude, “the quality of being thankful; a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” rewards generosity and is interwoven with acts of kindness (Bergland, 2015). Research has shown that generosity and gratitude work in ‘tandem’ to result in benefits both for the giver and the recipient (Bergland, 2015). It has even been found that generosity and gratitude operate similarly at the psychological and neurobiological levels (Bergland, 2015).
Gratitude and Gift-Giving
Antonio Damasio is a professor of psychology and neurology. Prof Damasio was the senior author of a study titled ‘Neural Correlates of Gratitude’ examining the experience of gratitude in the context of gift-giving, and identifying neural correlates of gratitude at the whole brain level (Bergland, 2015). Damasio concluded that “gratitude rewards generosity and maintains the cycle of healthy social behavior” (Bergland, 2015).
As cited in Algoe et al. (2010), Mauss conducted a study of gift exchange over time, which led him to summarize the significance of today’s culture exchange relationship. Mauss said,
“the unreciprocated gift still makes the person who has accepted it inferior.” (Mauss, cited in Algoe et al., 2010)
Thus, repayment of favors has implications for any type of relationship (Algoe et al., 2010). In fact, it has been found that the experience of gratitude motivates others who have benefited from acts of kindness to repay their benefactors, or even to extend generosity to third parties (McCullough, Kimeldorf, & Cohen, 2008).
Thanks and Gratitude
McCullough and colleagues (2008) also suggest that gratitude reinforces pro-social behavior (including generosity and kindness). This is because expressions of gratitude, such as someone saying “thank you” make it more likely that the individuals will behave pro-socially again in future (McCullough et al., 2008). In fact, it has been shown that when benefactors are thanked for their efforts, or their acts of kindness are acknowledged, they are more willing to be generous or work harder for others when the opportunity arises in future (McCullough et al., 2008).
When an individual thanks the benefactor, this acknowledges that their kindness has been noticed, and therefore the person who is the beneficiary may actually be more likely to reciprocate in future (McCullough et al., 2008). Tsang (2006) discovered that a person who benefits from the intentional effort of another were not only more grateful than those people who received a benefit by chance, they were also more likely to show generosity to the person who had made the effort (McCullough et al., 2008). It is thought that it may be the case that gratitude motivates pro-social acts by having an influence on those particular psychological states that support generosity and kindness (McCullough et al., 2008).
Relationships and Gratitude
Kindness, generosity and gratitude also play an important role in relationships. A survey of over 5000 people found that small, everyday things were the most important factors in making relationships work (John, 2016). Overall, those surveyed revealed that of particular importance was to display kindness to one another, and also to be grateful to each other for acts of kindness as well as everything else that each partner brings to the relationship (John, 2016).
Acts of kindness may include simply carrying out everyday caring gestures, such as bringing a loved one a cup of tea at the beginning or end of the day (John, 2016). To introduce more gratitude into the relationship, one practical thing a couple can do is to think about the specific things about one another that they appreciate and are thankful for (John, 2016). The partners can remind themselves about the things that attracted them to each other when they first met, and the things that each individual is thankful for now (John, 2016). The couple can let them know what those things are.
This section has explored the nature of kindness, generosity and gratitude and it will now be clear to you how through reinforcement, gratitude increases the likelihood of kindness and generosity. Take a moment to think of the last time you did something kind or generous for someone… were they grateful? If so, how did that make you feel?
A Look at Gratitude and Recovery
It has been suggested that gratitude is associated with recovery in 12-step programs (Krentzman, Mannella, Hassett, Barnett, Cranford, Brower et al., 2015). For example, as part of its 10th step, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recommends expressing “genuine gratitude for blessings received” (Krentzman et al., 2015). Many sponsors in this program also recommend making a ‘gratitude list’ (Krentzman et al., 2015).
Krentzman et al. ‘s (2015) study looked at 23 adults in outpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder. The researchers used a simple gratitude exercise – the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise, which sees individuals recording 3 good things that happened that day and why they happened (Krentzman et al., 2015). Even though the exercise did not affect the participants’ grateful disposition over time, the results of this study did suggest that the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise was of benefit in reinforcing recovery (Krentzman et al., 2015).
For people who had actually recovered from a serious physical illness, several character strengths – including gratitude – were higher than for individuals who had never suffered a serious illness (Peterson, Park & Seligman, 2006). Similarly, in those who had recovered from a psychological disorder, strengths such as gratitude were higher than for individuals who did not have a history of psychological disorder (Peterson et al., 2006). In fact, in analyses of those with a history of a psychological disorder who had fully recovered, gratitude was found to be a reliable associated strength (Peterson et al., 2006).
Thus, gratitude both plays a role in the recovery process and is implicated as a resultant character strength arising from such recovery.
The Relationship Between Humility and Gratitude
Kruse, Chancellor, Ruberton and Lyubomirsky (2014) looked at humility and gratitude and they contend that the two mutually reinforce one another. Perhaps, they suggest, this is because gratitude is an emotion which is externally focused and humility is the outcome of low self-focus and increased focus on others. Humble people are characterised by having an accurate self-concept, they are not arrogant, they have a balanced sense of their strengths and weaknesses and they also appreciate the strengths and worth of others (Kruse, Chancellor, Ruberton & Lyubomirsky, 2014).
Humility has been said to be a character strength, and studies by these researchers have considered humility to be a state rather than a trait. Gratitude, like humility, also involves an awareness of the strengths and value of others (Kruse et al., 2014). Gratitude sees the focus shift away from the self, which may also shift humility (Kruse et al., 2014). Gratitude and indebtedness both occur during reciprocal exchanges, however the difference is that indebtedness results from the recipient’s feeling that there is an obligation to return the favor to the giver (Kruse et al., 2014).
Kruse and colleagues (2014) conducted three related studies:
- Gratitude was elicited experimentally and then humility was measured by coding participants’ responses to an open-ended prompt.
- Firstly, state humility was measured and then gratitude was elicited experimentally, and
- Both state humility and gratitude were measured over a period of 14 days.
The findings of Kruse et al. (2014) were:
1. Study One
Participants who wrote a letter of gratitude were rated by coders as more humble than those in the neutral control group. It should be noted that the gratitude and control groups did not differ on positive affect – although the participants who wrote the gratitude letter reported slightly fewer negative emotions than the participants who wrote about their previous 2 hours. Therefore, the authors concluded that the differences in humility between the experimental and control groups were not explained by emotions.
2. Study Two
Participants who scored more highly on baseline humility experienced greater gratitude in response to the letter writing task than a neutral task, whilst those who were low in baseline humility did not. There was, therefore, a significant interaction between humility and experimental condition – individuals’ state humility accounts for the variation in their susceptibility to gratitude inductions. The research also found that state humility also moderates the emotional consequences of writing a letter of gratitude.
Thus, the first two studies showed that gratitude increases humility and also that humility predicts greater capacity to experience gratitude – as well as more positive and less negative affect (Kruse et al., 2014).
3. Study Three
Across all 14 days of the study, gratitude and humility were positively correlated. The authors found in this particular study that, when daily events are observed, humility and gratitude seem to be mutually reinforcing. Although they predict each other over time, however, they do not do so perfectly. Overall, this study showed that humility and gratitude explain the significant amount of one another’s variation over time.
Overall, this comprehensive investigation found that inducing gratitude – which both encourages an external focus and inhibits internal focus – can also increase humility (Kruse et al., 2014). The research of Kruse et al (2014) also identified humility as a ‘state’ that can facilitate increased sensitivity to gratitude. And, finally, the results from Kruse et al. (2014) suggest that humility and gratitude may also reinforce each other.
Is Gratitude a Virtue?
Gratitude is commonly thought of as a virtue in moral philosophy literature (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). In fact, back in 54 BC, Cicero stated:
‘In truth, O judges, while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than the being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues’ (Tudge, Freitas & O’Brien, 2015, p. 281).
There seems to be a debate as to whether, in fact, gratitude can be considered a virtue. Tudge and colleagues (2015) argue that yes, gratitude is a virtue, because it is a disposition; a wish to repay, in some way, for a kindness that was done or a gift that was given. They suggest that a grateful person can be said to have the virtue of gratitude.
According to Tudge, Freitas and O’Brien (2015) a virtue can be defined as an acquired disposition, or characteristic, of the individual to ‘do good’ or in other words,
“a persisting and reliable disposition to behave in a morally praiseworthy manner” (p. 284).
They note the following features of gratitude as a virtue:
An individual has received help or a gift from another person or an institution
The individual realises that they have been given something of value by the benefactor, and that this person freely intended to provide the benefit, and
The beneficiary freely chooses to repay, if at all possible and appropriate, with something the benefactor needs or would like.
In looking at the development of gratitude as a virtue, in 1938 Baumgarten-Tramer looked at age-related patterns of responses and identified 3 major types of gratitude that each represent a more sophisticated type of gratitude – verbal, concrete, and connective gratitude (Tudge et al., 2015).
Looking at gratitude as a virtue seeks to consider gratitude less in the focus on the ‘gift’ or ‘favor’ itself and more on the giver.
Tudge and colleagues argue the modern conceptualization of gratitude has largely surrounded the association between gratitude and well-being. Whilst these researchers concede that well-being is highly important, and that if the reflection on what one has to be grateful for results in greater well-being then it should be encouraged, they also note the fact that the term ‘gratitude’ has perhaps loosened too much (Tudge et al., 2015). They suggest that modern gratitude scales do not even have anything to do with gratitude as a virtue, given that none of the scale items reference any sense of obligation to return a favor or help (Tudge et al., 2015).
In considering what gratitude is (and isn’t!) Tudge et al. (2015) do raise a point which is interesting to consider… is it the same thing (i.e. ‘gratitude’) to be thankful that one own’s a number of valuable items; as, to admire spring blossoms; to be appreciative for one’s health and – finally – to feel a moral obligation to do something for someone who has helped us? Great food for thought!
Thus, to summarise, traditionally gratitude was certainly seen as a virtue. People are morally obligated to feel and express gratitude in response to received benefits (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). With time, however, the understanding of what gratitude is has certainly loosened a lot.
The Gratitude Scale(s)
I will now look at the two most widely used scales designed to measure gratitude, the GRAT and the GQ-6.
The GRAT is the Gratitude, Resentment and Appreciation Test, developed by Watkins, Woodward, Stone and Kolts (2003). The GRAT consists of 44 items. After reading each item, the respondent indicates their agreement/disagreement with the statement on a 5-point Likert-type scale. Three example items from the GRAT are:
- ‘I believe that the things in life that are really enjoyable are just as available to me as they are to Ross Perot or Donald Trump’,
- ‘Often, I’m just amazed at how beautiful the sunsets are’, and
- ‘Although I think that I’m morally better than most, I haven’t gotten my just reward in life’ (this item is reverse scored) (Watkins, Woodward, Stone & Kolts, 2003).
When the GRAT was analysed, it was found to have good consistency (coefficient alpha = .92) (Watkins et al., 2003). It was also found to measure three factors: sense of abundance, simple appreciation, and appreciation of others. In their research, Watkins et al. (2003) also found that dispositional gratitude was more strongly related to positive affect than to negative affect. The GRAT had construct validity.
Watkins et al. (2003) found that gratitude exercises reliably lead to increased positive affect and that individuals who are more grateful tend to show greater increases in positive affect than those who are less grateful.
In order to develop a measure of gratitude, McCullough, Emmons and Tsang (2002) looked at facets of the grateful disposition. These were:
- Intensity: i.e. a person with a grateful disposition would feel more intensely grateful for a positive event than a less dispositionally grateful individual.
- Frequency: they may experience grateful feelings a number of times throughout the day and simple things such as a basic favour or act of politeness may elicit thankfulness.
- Span: this refers to the range of benefits which an individual feels grateful for at a particular time. People who are high in the disposition of gratitude may feel appreciative, at any given time, of a wide range of life circumstances such as their family, their job, their health, simply life itself plus other benefits. On the other hand, individuals who are less disposed to gratitude may feel grateful for comparatively fewer aspects of their lives.
- Density: a person who is more likely to feel appreciative of a number of people for a single positive outcome, whereas a person less disposed to gratitude may feel grateful for a fewer number of people for the same outcome.
McCullough and colleagues then developed the GC-6: Gratitude Questionnaire. It is a self-report measure of gratitude. To begin in developing the scale, 39 items were chosen, including both positively and negatively worded items that assess experiences and expressions of gratefulness and appreciation in daily life, plus feelings about receiving benefits from others (McCullough et al., 2002). The items were developed from the 4 facets of gratitude, e.g.:
Intensity: “I feel thankful for what I have received in life”
Frequency: “Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone”
Span: “I sometimes feel grateful for the smallest things”, and
Density: “I am grateful to a wide variety of people” (McCullough et al., 2002).
Each item requires a response that indicates the degree of agreement on a 7-point Likert-type scale (where 1 – strongly disagree, to 7 – strongly agree).
As a result of a factor analysis, McCullough and colleagues retained 6 items that assessed the unique aspects of the grateful disposition.
- Therefore, the GQ-6 is as follows:
- I have so much in life to be thankful for
- If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list
- When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for *
- I am grateful to a wide variety of people
- As I get older, I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events and situations that have been part of my life history
- Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone *
n.b. * items 3 and 6 are reverse scored (McCullough et al., 2002)
8 Interesting Facts and Statistics on Gratitude
Here are a few fun facts about gratitude and some statistics – hope you find them interesting!
- In a study of over 800 descriptive trait words, “grateful” was rated in the top four percent in terms of likeability (Watkins et al., 2003).
- The Big 5 only accounted for approximately 30% of the variance in the disposition of gratitude (McCullough et al., 2002).
- A 5-minute a day gratitude journal can increase your long-term wellbeing by more than 10% (Happier Human, 2018)
- Keeping a gratitude journal caused participants to report:
- 16% fewer physical symptoms
- 19% more time exercising
- 10% less physical pain
- 8% more sleep, and
- 25% increased sleep quality (Happier Human, 2018)
- A gratitude journal lowered depressive symptoms for 30% or more for as long as the practice was continued (Happier Human, 2018)
- Patients with hypertension were instructed to count their blessings once a week. There was a significant decrease in their systolic BP (Happier Human, 2018).
- A survey has found that over 90% of American teens and adults indicated that expressing gratitude made them “extremely happy” or “somewhat happy” (Wood et al., 2010).
- In a relationship study over 2 weeks, out of 1768 daily reports, individuals indicated that their partner did something thoughtful for them 698 times and that they did something thoughtful for their partner 601 times (Algoe et al., 2010).
12 Recommended Articles
Rash, J.A., Matsuba, M. K., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Gratitude and well-being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention? Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being, 3, 350 – 369. doi: 10.1111/j.1758_0854.2011.01058.x
Toepfler, S. M., Cichy, K., & Peters, P. (2012). Letters of gratitude: Further evidence for author benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(1). doi: 10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7
Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213 – 233.
Sheldon, K. M & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73 – 82.
Tesser, A., Gatewood, R., & Driver, M. (1968). Some determinants of gratitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 233 – 236. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0025905
Lee, H. W., Bradburn, J., Johnson, R.E., Lin, S., & Chang, C. (2019). The benefits of receiving gratitude for helpers: A daily investigation of proactive and reactive helping at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104, 197 – 213. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1000346
Visserman, M. L., Righetti, F., Impett, E. A., Keltner, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2018). It’s the motive that counts: Perceived sacrifice motives and gratitude in romantic relationships. Emotion, 18, 625 – 637. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000344
Liao, K. Y., & Weng, C. (2018). Gratefulness and subjective well-being: Social connectedness and presence of meaning as mediators. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 65, 383 – 393. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000271
Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 56 – 69. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2000.19.1.56
Renshaw, T. L., & Hindman, M. L. (2017). Expressing gratitude via instant communication technology: A randomized controlled trial targeting college students’ mental health. Mental Health and Prevention, 7, 37 – 44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mhp.2017.08.001
Bryan, J. L., Young, C. M., Lucas, S., & Quist, M. C. (2018). Should I say thank you? Gratitude encourages cognitive reappraisal and buffers the negative impact of ambivalence over emotional expression in depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 120, 253 – 258.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890 – 905.
A Take Home Message
Perhaps before reading this article, you thought that gratitude was fairly simple, really… that, surely, spending a few minutes being thankful for your blessings would help you feel better day to day. Hopefully, this article has opened your eyes to the huge array of findings that researchers have actually discovered. Who would have thought that being grateful could help with blood pressure?!
This exploration of gratitude has revealed that gratitude has a multitude of benefits, such as contributing to happiness, promoting wellbeing and playing a role in recovery. Future research into the topic is exciting and promises much for the discipline of Positive Psychology. I do hope you have found something to interest you in this review of the research.
I am interested in your thoughts about gratitude. What do you see as the benefits of gratitude? I would especially love to hear about gratitude as a virtue: do you think that gratitude IS a virtue? Please take a few moments to share your views on this controversial topic. I hope you will contribute!
- 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, 217 – 233.
- Andersson, L. M., Giacalone, R. A., & Jurkiewicz, C. L. (2007). On the relationship of hope and gratitude to corporate social responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 70, 401 – 409. doi: 10.1007/s10551-006-9118-1
- Bergland, C. (2015). Small acts of generosity and the neuroscience of gratitude. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-athletes-way/201510/small-acts-generosity-and-the-neuroscience-gratitude
- Chan, D. W. (2010). Gratitude, gratitude intervention and subjective well-being among Chinese school teachers in Hong Kong. Educational Psychology, 30, 139 – 153. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410903493934
- 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, 34, 377 – 389. doi: 10.1037/0022-35-220.127.116.117
- Happier Human (n.d.). The 31 benefits of gratitude you didn’t know about: How gratitude can change your life. Retrieved from https://www.happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/
- John, M. (2016). Kindness and gratitude: Two ingredients for a good relationship. Retrieved from https://welldoing.org/article/kindness-gratitude-two-ingredients-good-relationship
- Krentzman, A. R., Mannella, K. A., Hassett, A. L., Barnett, N. P., Cranford, J. A., Brower, K. J., Higgins, M. M., & Meyer, P. S. (2015). Feasibility, acceptability, and impact of a web-based gratitude exercise among individuals in outpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 477 – 488. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1015158
- Kruse, E., Chancellor, J., Ruberton, P. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). An upward spiral between gratitude and humility. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 805 – 814. doi: 10.1177/1948550614534700
- McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112 – 127. doi: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
- McCullough, M. E., Kimeldorf, M. B., & Cohen, A. D. (2008). An adaptation for altruism? The social causes, social effects, and social evolution of gratitude. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 281 – 285.
- Nicholson, Jeremy (2011). How gratitude influences loving behaviour. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201109/how-gratitude-influences-loving-behavior
- Simon, Harvey (n.d.). Giving thanks can make you happier. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
- Tudge, J. R. H., Freitas, L. B. L., & O’Brien, L. T. (2015). The virtue of gratitude: A developmental and cultural approach. Human Development, 58, 281 – 300. doi: 10.1159/000444308
- Waters, L. (2012). Predicting job satisfaction: Contributions of individual gratitude and institutionalized gratitude. Psychology, 3, 1174 – 1176. http://dx.doi.org/10.4326/psych2012.312A173
- Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 431 – 452
- Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Gerghty, A. W. A (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890 – 905. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005
- Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Maltby, J. (2009). Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the Big Five facets. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 443 – 447.
- Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43 – 48.