What are the Benefits of Gratitude?
The Greater Good Science Center offers a plethora of information on this subject. In a white paper titled, “The Science of Gratitude” (2018), they outline several benefits to gratitude practice.
For the individual:
- increased happiness and positive mood
- more satisfaction with life
- less materialistic
- less likely to experience burnout
- better physical health
- better sleep
- less fatigue
- lower levels of cellular inflammation
- greater resiliency
- encourages the development of patience, humility, and wisdom
- increases prosocial behaviors
- strengthens relationships
- may help employees’ effectiveness
- may increase job satisfaction
Emmons & Mishra (2011) explored many of the above benefits in “Why gratitude enhances wellbeing: What we know, what we need to know.” They concluded that there is “considerable evidence that gratitude builds social resources by strengthening relationships and promoting prosocial actions.” As you continue reading, you will discover more support for making gratitude a habit.
A Look at the Research on Showing Gratitude
Showing gratitude is not merely saying, “thank you.” Wong and Brown (2017) asked how gratitude affects us mentally and physically. Their study involved assigning students into three groups:
Group one wrote a gratitude letter to another person every week for three weeks. Group two wrote about their thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. Group three didn’t write anything. All three groups received counseling services. Group one reported “significantly better mental health four and 12 weeks” after the intervention ended.
Their findings also suggest that a combined gratitude practice/counseling approach is more beneficial than counseling alone.
The researchers analyzed their findings to figure out how gratitude has these effects. They determined that gratitude does four things:
- Gratitude disconnects us from toxic, negative emotions and the ruminating that often accompanies them. Writing a letter “shifts our attention” so that our focus is on positive emotions.
- Expressing gratitude helps us even if we don’t explicitly share it with someone. We’re happier and more satisfied with life because we completed the exercise.
- The positive effects of gratitude writing compound like interest. You might not notice the benefit of a daily or weekly practice, but after several weeks and months, you will.
- A gratitude practice trains the brain to be more in tune with experiencing gratitude — a positive plus a positive, equal more positives.
Their findings echo research done by Emmons and many others.
Bartlett & DeSteno (2006) found there is a positive relationship between kind, helpful behavior, and feeling grateful. In, “Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you,” they discuss this connection in great detail. Throughout three studies they determined,
- Gratitude facilitates helping behavior,
- Grateful people help the people who helped them (benefactors) and strangers similarly, and
- Reminding people who helped them (a benefactor) still increased helping behavior exhibited toward strangers. The reciprocity norm wasn’t a factor.
Dickens and DeSteno (2018) found an association between self-control (patience) and gratitude. Grateful people delay future rewards to a higher degree than ungrateful people. The researchers point out that this has implications for more than one’s finances. Increasing levels of gratitude also could help people positively affect health-related behaviors.
Not all the research supports positive outcomes. Sansone & Sansone (2010) highlight four studies that “temper the association between gratitude and wellbeing.”
In, “Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing in Vietnam war veterans,” Kashdan and colleagues (2006) found that trait gratitude had a relationship with wellbeing, but only among participants with PTSD. Trait gratitude is defined as “an enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behavior across a range of situations” (APA, n.d.).
Researcher Patricia Henrie (2006) explored the affects daily gratitude journaling has on wellbeing and adjusting to divorce. The study included middle-aged women, all of whom belonged to and practiced the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
In “The effects of gratitude on divorce adjustment and wellbeing of middle-aged divorced women,” Henrie found that participants in her treatment groups experienced no improvement in life satisfaction.
Sansone and Sansone (2010) write that participants in Ozimkowski’s 2007 study wrote and delivered a letter to someone in their lives whom they’d never thanked. The study titled, “The gratitude visit in children and adolescents: an investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being” revealed that writing and delivering a gratitude letter did not enhance well-being among children and adolescents.
Ozimkowski’s dissertation, cited by 14 other researchers, was unavailable at the time of this writing (Google Scholar, n.d.).
Gurel Kirgiz (2007) investigated whether experimentally-induced gratitude influences affect and temporary self-construal. The results, outlined in “Effects of gratitude on subjective wellbeing, self-construal, and memory” suggest that state gratitude does not have a relationship with wellbeing, but that trait gratitude does. State gratitude is defined as one’s present or current level of gratitude.
Robert Emmons (2010), the preeminent scholar in this field, makes the argument that gratitude allows a person to:
- celebrate the present
- block toxic emotions (envy, resentment, regret, depression)
- be more stress-resilient, and
- strengthen social ties and self-worth.
Gratitude research is on-going by experts worldwide.
When gratitude fails
As easy as gratitude is to put into practice, there is one thing that can get in the way of it ‘going viral:’ Ingratitude. Emmons (2013) offers the following characteristics of ingratitude:
- excessive sense of self-importance
- unquenchable need for admiration and approval
- sense of entitlement
Some might recognize these as traits describing a narcissistic personality. Philosopher David Hume (1739) wrote, “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.”
Researcher Thomas Gilovich (2017) describes ingratitude as the result of “adaptation, dwelling on negatives, and skewed perceptions of hardships.” In Enemies of Gratitude, Gilovich explains how and why these three experiences interfere with one’s ability to express gratitude. In addition to this, he offers ways to combat these enemies.