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.
The Effects Gratitude Has on Health
According to Julie Ray (2019) of the Gallup Organization, “The world took a negative turn in 2017, with global levels of stress, worry, sadness and pain hitting new highs.” How can this trend change for the better? Research demonstrates that one way is through practicing gratitude.
The following studies demonstrate the affect gratitude has on one’s mental and physical health.
- Writing a gratitude letter and counting blessings had “high utility scores and were associated with substantial improvements in optimism” (Huffman, Dubois, Healy, Boehm, Kashdan, Celano, Denninger, & Lyubomirsky, 2014).
- Gratitude letter writing leads to better mental health in adult populations seeking psychotherapy (Wong, Owen, Brown, Mcinnis, Toth, & Gilman, 2016).
- Gratitude buffers people from stress and depression (Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008).
- Positive reframing underlies the relationship between trait gratitude and a sense of coherence. A sense of coherence is how confident a person feels about potential life outcomes. It is the degree to which a person feels optimistic and in control of future events (Lambert, Graham, Fincham, & Stillman, 2009).
- Patients who expressed optimism/gratitude two weeks after an acute coronary event had healthier hearts (Huffman, Beale, Beach, Celano, Belcher, Moore, Suarez, Gandhi, Motiwala, Gaggin, & Januzzi 2015).
- Gratitude and spiritual wellbeing are related to positive affect, sleep quality, energy, self-efficacy, and lower cellular inflammation (Mills, Redwine, Wilson, Pung, Chinh, Greenberg, Lunde, Maisel, & Raisinghani, 2015).
- Gratitude may enhance peace of mind, reduce rumination, and have a negative effect on depressive symptoms (Liang, Chen, Li, Wu, Wang, Zheng, & Zeng, 2018).
If a person could do only one thing to increase their health and happiness, expressing gratitude might be it. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, has remarked, “when we take time to notice the things that go right – it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day” (BrainyQuote, n.d.).
Every time a person expresses or receives gratitude, dopamine releases in the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is produced in two areas of the brain: the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental. The former has to do with movement and speech, the latter with reward (Carter, 2009). When a person expresses or receives gratitude, dopamine releases, thus making a connection between the behavior and feeling good.
The more a person practices gratitude, the more often dopamine releases.
Proven Advantages of Keeping a Daily Gratitude Journal
One of the most popular gratitude exercises is the daily gratitude journal. One study found that materialism among adolescents decreased when they implemented this practice. Participants also donated 60% more money to charity (Chaplin, Roedder John, Rindfleisch, & Froh, 2019).
Fritz and colleagues (2019) learned that after completing a gratitude writing exercise, state gratitude predicted healthier eating behavior among undergraduate students. In a second study, they found that a weekly gratitude letter was associated with better eating habits. The teens in this study also experienced fewer negative emotions during the intervention period, which spanned four weeks.
Gratitude journaling might reduce inflammation in people who have experienced Stage B, asymptomatic heart failure (Redwine, Henry, Pung, Wilson, Chinh, Jain, Rutledge, Greenberg, Maisel, & Mills 2016). In a study titled “Gratitude journaling intervention in patients with Stage B heart failure,” Redwine and colleagues (2016) piloted an 8-week gratitude journaling intervention.
Compared to standard treatment, the intervention group also experienced an improvement in trait gratitude scores.
There is conflicting research about how often a person should journal. Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2010) found that once or twice per week is more beneficial than daily journaling.
The Benefits of Gratitude in the Workplace
People spend more time per week working than with their families (OECD, 2019). Since this is the case, it is vital that people work in healthy, supportive environments. Instilling and expressing gratitude is a simple way companies can increase employees’ job satisfaction.
Some employers and employees are hesitant to engage in formal gratitude practices. In response, researcher Amie Gordon (2019) identified Four myths about being grateful at work. She outlined the truths about gratitude revealed through scientific inquiry.
The myths and truths are:
- Myth #1: It’s forced.
Truth: Participants assigned to “be more grateful” are more satisfied, healthier, and happier. People enjoy gratitude interventions even when told to practice it.
- Myth #2: It’s fake.
Truth: Expressing gratitude when it is felt matters. Being specific about what one is grateful for heightens the experience for both people.
- Myth #3: It’s fluffy.
Truth: Gratitude is about feeling valued by others and seeing value in others. The majority of employees will leave if they do not feel appreciated and recognized.
- Myth #4: It undermines authority.
Truth: Grateful leaders inspire trust. They are perceived as having more integrity.
What our readers think
Love it. Each one has a Bible reference.
Thank you for this insightful article. I did not realize that active and mindful practice of expressing gratitude can have such profound positive impact in life.
Great article. Thank you!
It’s a great idea.gratitude is an Aura that transcends from God to Man
Thank you for this insightful collective of resources and research regarding gratitude.
Yes, I worked at a school where my boss said thank you to me often. Then I worked at another school where the bosses very rarely expressed appreciation. Which school do you think was more fun?
Gracias por compartir información valiosa que permite ampliar los recursos en el desarrollo personal, thank you.
Thank you for such an informative article on Gratitude. I will definitely apply it to my life more.
Michael Davis 23 October 2021
I really enjoyed reading this article. I already practice reframing techniques; however, I like the concept of a “gratitude journal.” Thank you!
I try and think of that every day and to teach my children that as well, great post and how to put things into perspective.