Science of Positivity – Gratitude


Gratitude: Parent of all virtues

The great Roman orator Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Indeed, all of us can think of times in our lives when we’ve expressed heartfelt thanks to others for gifts of time and effort. Being grateful feels good. Gratitude, the state or feeling of being thankful, is an almost universal concept among world cultures. In fact, nearly all of the world’s spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of giving thanks to benefactors, supernatural or otherwise (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000†). Robert Emmons, a leader in the field of gratitude research, defines gratitude as the feeling that occurs when a person attributes a benefit they have received to another (Emmons, 2004). Feeling grateful has a number of benefits. Feelings of gratitude are associated with less frequent negative emotions and more frequent positive emotions such as feeling energized, alert, and enthusiastic (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002). Beyond emotions, there is evidence that gratitude is associated with pleasant physical sensations, as well. Algoe and Haidt (2009) found that people experienced pleasant muscle relaxation when recalling situations in which they’d felt grateful. It is apparent that the mere act of giving thanks can have remarkable impact on a person’s well-being.

Taking time to appreciate your mother for all the care she provided growing up; reconnecting with an old friend to express your gratitude for always being there for you; seeking out and thanking a favorite teacher who helped you grow – specific acts of gratitude can have a variety of positive consequences, but what about people who are more grateful by nature than others? Given the centrality of thanksgiving in religious traditions, grateful people tend to be more spiritual than their less-grateful counterparts. People who are generally grateful report being more agreeable and less narcissistic compared with less grateful people. People who are more grateful also report being happier (Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts, 2003).

Characteristics of grateful people

What separates more grateful people from less grateful people? Recent evidence shows that a lot of the differences may be in how grateful people approach situations in which they’ve received some form of aid. When presented with the same short stories in which participants are told they’ve received help from another people, more grateful people tend to see their benefactors as more selfless and having exerted more effort to help, as well as placing higher value on the help they received (Wood, Maltby, Stewart, Linley, & Joseph, 2008). To further support this hypothesis, these authors sought to replicate their findings in people’s daily lives. Students kept diaries of moments in their everyday environment when they were helped by another person and then asked to rate how selfless and sincere was the benefactor, how much effort did the benefactor expend, how grateful did they feel toward their benefactor, and how valuable was the help received Findings from these random moments in everyday life supported the hypothesis that more grateful people rate all of these factors higher than less grateful people. These findings suggest that grateful people interpret events in a unique way, and this interpretation style might account for the benefits extracted from gift giving experiences.

Extrapolating from the interpretations that differentiate more and less grateful people, Wood and colleagues (2008) used a longitudinal design to investigate how gratitude related to social support, stress, and depression. Longitudinal studies follow the same group of people over time, which allows researchers to examine temporal relationships between different variables. This has the benefit of strengthening hypotheses about causal relationships between variables. In this study, the researchers asked people to rate the overall gratitude, social support, depression, and stress in their life. Everyone was contacted again to complete the same questionnaires three months later. How grateful people initially felt predicted greater feelings of social support and less stress and depression three months later. Thus, it appears that grateful people find themselves feeling a sense of belonging and a relative absence of stress and depression. Psychologists have repeatedly shown that perceptions are more important than objective reality and grateful people possess benign interpretations of themselves, other people, and the world.

There are interpersonal benefits associated with gratitude, as well. Feelings of gratitude are associated with increased feelings of closeness and a desire to build or strengthen relationships with a benefactor (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). Acts of gratitude require us to admire good characteristics of other people. Doing so encourages us to become closer to them. It has the added benefit of improving mood: reflecting upon the good another had done for them elevated the moods of participants in Algoe and Haidt’s (2009) study, who were asked to recall a time in which another person had assisted them in an exemplary way. In addition, the act of contemplating times in which another person had helped these participants resulted in participants expressing a desire for moral growth and to help others, themselves. Thus, it appears that being grateful can actually encourage people to do something good for another person. Gratitude, therefore, might have important benefits to society as a whole.

It has become clear that there are a number of advantages associated with being grateful. Among other things, grateful people are happier, have stronger feelings of social support, and feel less stressed and depressed. As being grateful has so many positive attributes, it seems that intervening to increase people’s levels of gratitude may be a good way to increase their feelings of well-being. In the next section, we discuss the research that has attempted to do just that.

Becoming more grateful; does it work?

While it’s clear that gratitude and well-being are connected, the research presented above is correlational in nature. What this means is that, while those studies tell us there is a connection between being grateful and being happy, it is impossible to say which one leads to the other. Based on that evidence, it could simply be that people who are already happier are more grateful. To better identify a causal relationship, carefully controlled experiments are required.

Fortunately, there has been an abundance of such research in the last decade. Emmons and McCullough (2003) conducted some of the first experimental studies of the effects of gratitude on well-being. In one study, college students were randomly placed into one of three conditions, (gratitude, hassles, or events), each of which lasted for nine weeks. Participants were given weekly packets in which they were to write down different things depending on their condition. In the gratitude condition, students were asked to write down several experiences for which they were grateful. In the hassles condition, students wrote down annoyances they experienced in the previous week. Finally, in the events condition, students wrote down a number of events that affected them in the past week. No instruction was given about what types of events to include, and responses ranged from “learned CPR” to “cleaned out my shoe closet”. The events condition acted as a neutral control condition to which the other two were compared. Students also completed a series of measures assessing physical symptoms and overall well-being. Students in the grateful condition reported significantly greater life satisfaction, greater optimism for the upcoming week, fewer physical symptoms, and, perhaps most surprisingly, exercised significantly more than students in either the events condition or the hassles condition. However, the gratitude intervention did not have a significant impact on positive or negative emotions. Thus, while being grateful caused students to assess their lives as more satisfying and made them more optimistic about their futures, it didn’t change the overall emotional tone of their daily lives.

A subsequent study replaced the weekly exercises from the previous study with daily diaries that were used for two weeks. This study kept the gratitude and hassles conditions, but replaced the events condition with instructions to write about ways in which the students were better off than other people. This study found a significant difference in levels of positive affect between people in the gratitude condition and people in the hassles condition, which is a bit like comparing healthiness between people who have eaten fruits and vegetables for a week with people who have eaten only cheeseburgers and fries. Based on these two studies, the causal link between gratitude and well-being is clearly present. However, it is thus far difficult to make the claim that being grateful makes a person happier.

While the research by Emmons and McCullough (2003) suggests that being more grateful doesn’t necessarily increase positive emotions more than not doing anything at all, that study was conducted with a sample of undergraduates. Perhaps children, whose brains and personalities are more malleable than those of college students, would derive greater benefit from grateful acts. To investigate this, Froh and colleagues (2008) examined the effects of counting blessings in a sample of sixth and seventh graders. Classes were assigned to the same conditions as in Emmons and McCullough (2003). Findings were similar to that study, as well, with the gratitude intervention resulting in happier students when compared to the students who wrote about their hassles, but not when compared to the neutral control students. However, these researchers examined other outcomes, as well. Froh and colleagues found that students who were told to be grateful were more excited about and satisfied with school than the students in the other conditions. Given the importance of school satisfaction in academic performance, this is a promising area of research for researchers and educators alike.

The studies covered thus far have shown a number of benefits associated with increasing gratitude in people of different ages. What they have not yet shown, however, is that making people more grateful makes them happier. To further investigate this area, Froh and colleagues (2009) hypothesized that gratitude interventions weren’t increasing levels of positive affect because many of the people who composed the samples in previous research were already happy. Perhaps people who are happier reach a “ceiling” point, beyond which it is very difficult to become even happier. This theory is consistent with research by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who found that people adapt quickly to positive changes in their lives and thus derive diminishing happiness returns from them. Perhaps, for people who are less happy to begin with, feelings of gratitude are more novel, and thus less happy people experience a greater benefit from gratitude exercises. Froh and colleagues (2009) examined the

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