Although happiness is sometimes perceived as a state that can be reached by achieving some goal or acquiring some possession (e.g., “I would be happy if only …”), psychological research suggests that happiness is more related to being grateful for what we already have. In this article, we will dive into the effects of gratitude.
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What is gratitude?
What exactly do we mean by gratitude? Most of us associate gratitude with saying “thanks” to someone. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is more complex and has been depicted as an emotion, a mood, a moral virtue, a habit, a motive, a personality trait, a coping response, and even a way of life.
Let’s take the emotion gratitude for instance. Think about a time when you felt grateful. What feelings do you associate with this state? Most people report states as peaceful, warm, friendly or joyful. You are unlikely to say that gratitude makes you feel burdened, stressed or angry. This small experiment illustrates that gratitude is a positive, desirable state, that people generally find enjoyable.
According to dr. Robert Emmons, gratitude involves two stages.
Two stages of gratitude:
- First is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In gratitude we say yes to life. We affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, either by its presence or by the effort the giver went into choosing it.
- Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to animals, but never to oneself.
Research findings – The Effects of Gratitude
In a study by McCraty and colleagues (1998), 45 adults were taught to “cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions.” Results showed that there was a mean 23% reduction in cortisol after the intervention period, thus indicating lower levels of this stress hormone in the blood. 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 gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but who had never been properly thanked. They were instructed to perform the exercise for only one week.
The gratitude visit involves three basic steps: First, think of someone who has done something important and wonderful for you, yet who has not been properly thanked. Next, reflect on the benefits you received from this person, and write a letter expressing your gratitude for all he or she did 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 gratitude visit reported more happiness for one month after the intervention compared to a control group.
Grateful people are more agreeable, 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) Gratitude is negatively related to depression and positively to satisfaction with life (Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2008) Gratitude relates to willingness to forgive (DeShea, 2003) Gratitude relates to low narcissism (Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998) Gratitude strengthens relationships and promotes relationship formation and maintenance (Algoe et al., 2008), as well as relationship connection and satisfaction (Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010)
How can we train gratitude?
One possible answer to this question was provided in a study by McCullough and Emmons (2003). Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each participant “completed an extensive daily journal in which they rated their moods, physical health, and overall judgments concerning how their lives were going.
Keeping a journal
Every week for ten weeks each participant kept a short journal. They either briefly described, in a single sentence, five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week (the gratitude condition), or they did the opposite, describing five daily hassles (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, and they 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 even spent more time exercising than control participants did. The gratitude group participants experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness that those in either of the other two groups. Lastly, people in the gratitude condition spent significantly more time exercising (nearly 1.5 hours more per week) than those in the hassles condition.
Daily gratitude intervention
A daily gratitude intervention resulted in more positive effects than did the weekly intervention. A daily gratitude 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.
So why not start training gratitude yourself?
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. Or consider making a gratitude visit to someone who has been especially kind or helpful to you but who you have never properly thanked. Reflect on the benefits you received from this person, write a letter expressing your gratitude, and make arrangements to personally deliver the letter and see if you can replicate the research findings described above!
Robert Emmons on Cultivating Gratitude:
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- The Link Between Happiness and Bodily Sensations
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- Gratitude: A Deeper Appreciation
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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.