There is a variety of things that can conjure positive feelings of appreciation or gratitude that may guide people towards meaning and better health.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson offers a helpful introduction into what practicing gratitude can look like, and this article will begin there and explore the current psychological research behind this value.
Gratitude is an emotion similar to appreciation, and positive psychology research has found neurological reasons why so many people can benefit from this general practice of expressing thanks for our lives, even in times of challenge and change.
To begin though, we need to define what we mean by “gratitude.”
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This article contains:
- What is Gratitude? 10 Definitions
- Key Synonyms
- Antonyms of Gratitude
- Two Stages of Gratitude
- Purpose of This Emotion
- Why Gratitude Works
- Trait or State?
- Philosophical Perspectives on Gratitude
- Religious and Spiritual Perspectives on Gratitude
- Modern Psychological Perspectives on Gratitude
- The Effects of Gratitude
- Gratitude in Relationships
- Apply It to Your Life
- A Take-Home Message
What is Gratitude?
Many of us express gratitude by saying “thank you” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift. From a scientific perspective, however, gratitude is not just an action: it is also a positive emotion that serves a biological purpose.
Positive psychology defines gratitude in a way where scientists can measure its effects, and thus argue that gratitude is more than feeling thankful: it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces longer lasting positivity.
Before continuing with that definition, we offer 10 definitions to provide a cultural context for how the word has changed over time.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gratitude is simply “the state of being grateful.”
The Harvard Medical School provides more detail, writing that gratitude is:
“a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals–whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”
This provides a more helpful context, leading us into the next definition from psychiatry researchers, who define gratitude as:
“the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation” (Sansone & Sansone, 2010).
Researchers also offer this definition:
“an emotion that is typically evoked when one receives costly, unexpected, and intentionally rendered benefits, and is thought to play a key role in regulating the initiation and maintenance of social relationships” (Forster et al., 2017).
Another simple definition of gratitude that comes from psychology research is:
“a social emotion that signals our recognition of the things others have done for us” (Fox et al., 2015).
This definition is important because it brings a social element into the definition of gratitude.
The social aspect of gratitude from this theologian says:
“if we acquire a good through exchange, effort or achievement, or by right, then we don’t typically feel gratitude. Gratitude is an emotion we feel in response to receiving something good which is undeserved” (Lacewing, 2016).
Another definition emphasizing its social aspect comes from social psychology researchers, who claim that:
“gratitude is a positively valenced emotion that can arise when another person–a benefactor–does something kind for the self (Algoe et al., 2016).
One morality-based psychologist writes that:
“gratitude is not goods delivered in response to payment. It is a response to a gift … Gratitude, as a response to a gift, is also a form of generosity, of graciously crediting the other for something that was not strictly owed” (Roberts, 1991).
To understand further, Robert Emmons offers his psychological research definition on the topic that gratitude:
“has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more. Minimally, gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
Emmons explains gratitude deeper in another paper. He (and his coauthor Robin Stern) say that:
“gratitude has a dual meaning: a worldly one and a transcendent one. In its worldly sense, gratitude is a feeling that occurs in interpersonal exchanges when one person acknowledges receiving a valuable benefit from another. Gratitude is a cognitive-affective state that is typically associated with the perception that one has received a personal benefit that was not intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned but rather because of the good intentions of another person” (Emmons & Stern, 2013).
We hope these definitions of gratitude provide a psychological, social, and religious context for this positive emotion. Whether you agree with all the definitions or identify with one, we are now equipped to delve into its greater role in our health and daily lives.
In summary, gratitude is a positive emotion felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of gift. It is also a social emotion often directed towards a person (the giver of a gift) or felt towards a higher power.
If you want to try out a powerful form to practice it, check out our post on gratitude meditation.
There are many synonyms of gratitude, including:
Acknowledgment, appreciativeness, and thankfulness are most relatable for the purpose of this article.
Antonyms of Gratitude
The obvious antonym of gratitude is ingratitude, but other antonyms include:
Many people are not appreciative despite being the beneficiary of an altruistic act. Can you think of a time when you felt this? Most people can. It is not a pleasant experience for anyone.
Thanklessness deprives people of the emotional rewards of gratitude, and this article hopes to offer tangible ways on how to cultivate a more appreciative state of being.
Two Stages of Gratitude
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude involves two stages (2003):
- First comes the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make worth living, and rich in texture. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, both by its presence and by the effort the giver put into choosing it.
- Second, gratitude is recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. One can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world, but not to oneself. At this stage, we recognize the goodness in our lives and who to thank for it, ie., who made sacrifices so that we could be happy?
The two stages of gratitude comprise the recognition of the goodness in our lives, and then how this goodness came to us externally lies. By this process, we recognize the luck of everything that makes our lives—and ourselves—better.
Purpose of This Emotion
People can use gratitude to form new social relations or to strengthen current ones.
Acts of gratitude can be used to apologize, make amends and help solve other problems.
Alternatively, people may feel gracious because it can be an intrinsically rewarding process. Simply being grateful for being alive is a great way to motivate oneself to seize the day.
The idea that tomorrow is not guaranteed is a strong motivator for some people to be their “best self” today.
Why Gratitude Works
Gratitude is a selfless act. Its acts are done unconditionally, to show to people that they are appreciated. “A gift that is freely given” is one way to understand what these acts are like.
For example, if someone is sad and you write them a note of appreciation, you are likely not asking for something in return for this person; instead, you are reminding them of their value, and expressing gratitude for their existence. At the moment, you are not waiting for a “return note” from this person.
Even when we do not expect a return, sometimes they happen. Gratitude can be contagious, in a good way. In the previous example, maybe when you are down, this person will write you a note too.
Here are two processes gratitude can influence.
Catharsis is the process in which an individual releases strong emotions.
For example, after a stressful or traumatic event, crying provides a means for such a strong release, rendering the activity cathartic. Catharsis works with gratitude.
To illustrate this, consider the guilt associated with “failing” to meet obligations. Perhaps in this situation, you would express gratitude to who you let down, in an attempt to release that guilt. The acts are meant to convey the appreciation that the friends possess, despite a recent disappointment.
Additionally, possessions from passed loved ones may provide a sense of serenity that enables the new owner to reflect with gratitude on that object and in essence, that person.
The use of gratitude serves as an agent of catharsis, where both parties feel satisfied in the end.
Reciprocity, as a concept from social psychology, is about the exchanging of actions.
In this case, it is about the exchange of positive emotion. When someone performs an act of gratitude for another person, in turn, that person may be motivated to do something gracious for the former person or continue the favor for a stranger.
Imagine having coffee or a meal with a friend, and they politely demand to pay for the outing. You may quibble back and forth about splitting the bill, but should they insist, you are likely to feel grateful, and an extended duty that the next meal is “your treat.”
In essence, this is exactly how reciprocity works.
Trait or State?
Gratitude is regarded as either a trait (dispositional) or state (of being).
As a trait, an individual practices gratitude as part of their daily life (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002) and it would be considered a character strength, to possess gratitude. As a trait, gratitude can be developed with practice and awareness (Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).
When a person experiences the rich emotion from someone expressing gratitude for them, it is referred to as state (Watkins, Van Gelder, & Frias, 2009). Gratitude is both of these: a trait and a state.
The state of being grateful is a pleasant experience studied by philosophers ancient times. This next section provides a richer context for how this emotion functioned historically in the mindset of people and societies.
Philosophical Perspectives on Gratitude
For at least 2,000 years, intellectuals have been considering the important role gratitude plays in daily life.
Ancient and not-so-ancient philosophers, such as Cicero, Seneca, and Adam Smith, preached the importance of giving thanks (Fox et al., 2015; McCullough et al., 2002). Cicero and Seneca thought of gratitude as a key virtue foundational to any successful civilization.
To be clear, it is not just ancient and historical philosophers who were interested in gratitude as a virtue. In the last few years, several papers describe gratitude from a hybrid psychological-philosophical perspective, as well as from an outright philosophical perspective (Jackson, 2016; Kristjansson, 2015; Moran, 2016; Morgan et al., 2017).
Recently, a paper argued that Jean-Paul Sartre’s beliefs are actually aligned with the modern positive psychology movement, since Sartre wrote about n gratitude as a character strength (Quackenbush et al., 2016).
If gratitude is a foundational human emotion, then it makes sense why humans have been studying it for millennia. Our species benefits from it, in so many ways.
Religious and Spiritual Perspectives on Gratitude
Unsurprisingly, religious and spiritual movements have explored gratitude too. Theravāda Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are some of the main religions with writings on this (Berkwitz, 2003; Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
Historically, many religions referred to gratitude strictly regarding the need to be thankful for a higher power. More so, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism stressed gratitude as an integral step on the path to a good life.
For example, in Judaism, followers of Yahweh are encouraged to start every day by being grateful for waking up again (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). Some psychologists believe that Christianity, as another example, incorporates a “gratitude to God” that binds many Christians together (Roberts, 1991).
For Islam, the purpose of the five daily prayers is not to ask Allah for anything, but instead, to show gratitude towards Allah (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). These three religions offer a unique role of gratitude, and overall, one of thanks for this existence and who created it.
In the older writings of Theravāda Buddhism, gratitude connects practitioners to their pasts (Berkwitz, 2003). Today, gratitude and the concept of karma is a driving force behind philanthropic Buddhism in China (Kuah-Pearce, 2014). Like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, gratitude plays a unique role in Buddhism historically and presently.
Several recent studies explore the relationship between religious gratitude (such as gratitude to a higher power) and well-being (Kraus et al., 2015; Krause & Hayward, 2015; Van Cappellen et al., 2016). This is a burgeoning area of research in the field of positive psychology.
Modern Psychological Perspectives on Gratitude
More recently, positive psychology has expanded research on the importance of gratitude, largely led by researcher Robert Emmons.
Emmons has authored several papers on the psychology of gratitude, showing that being more grateful can lead to increased levels of well-being (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). Some of Emmons’s work has also dealt specifically with gratitude in a religious setting, highlighting how feeling grateful towards a higher power may lead to increased physical health (Krause et al., 2015).
Here is an overview of nine recent psychological findings related to the study of gratitude:
1. Enhanced Well-being
Expressing your thanks can improve your overall sense of well-being. Grateful people are more agreeable, more 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).
Furthermore, gratitude is related inversely to depression, and positively to life satisfaction (Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2008). This is not to say that “depressed people” should simply be more grateful, as depression is a very complicated disease and struggle for millions of people. Instead, perhaps gratitude practices need to be a part of the therapy and treatment for people who struggle with depression.
2. Deeper Relationships
Gratitude is also a powerful tool for strengthening interpersonal relationships. People who express their gratitude for each other tend to be more willing to forgive others and less narcissistic (DeShea, 2003; Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998).
Giving thanks to those who have helped you strengthens your relationships and promotes relationship formation and maintenance, as well as relationship connection and satisfaction (Algoe et al., 2008; Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010).
3. Improved Optimism
Dr. Emmons and Dr. McCullough did a study in 2003 exploring the impact of practicing gratitude. After 10 weeks, their research conveys that people who focused on gratitude showed more optimism in many areas of their lives, including health and exercise.
When people are optimistic about their well-being and health, they may be more likely to act in ways that support a healthy lifestyle.
4. Increased Happiness
Toepfer, Cichy, and Peters (2011) conducted a study asking people to write and deliver a letter to someone for whom they were grateful. After the task, their happiness levels and life satisfaction were dramatically impacted—even weeks later.
In the pursuit of happiness and life satisfaction, gratitude offers a long-lasting effect in a positive-feedback loop of sorts. Thus, the more gratitude we experience and express, the more situations and people we may find to express gratitude towards.
5. Stronger Self-Control
Self-Control helps with discipline and focus. Long-term well-being can benefit from self-control, for example, resisting nicotine in cigarettes for someone who is trying to quit smoking. Self-control helps us stick to the “better choice” for our long-term health, financial future, and well-being.
A study by DeSteno et al. in 2014 found that self-control significantly increased when subjects chose gratitude over happiness or feeling neutral. One of the study’s authors, Professor Ye Li, said:
“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”
Being thankful can provide us the resolve we need to make choices in our lives that serve us, emotionally and physically, in the long-run. As this study highlights, there are so many applications to using gratitude as a path towards healthier humans and communities.
6. Better Physical and Mental Health
Research performed in 2015 showed that patients with heart failure who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep, and better moods; this reduced their symptoms of heart failure after only 8 weeks.
The link between the mind-body connection aligns with how gratitude can have a double benefit. For example, the feeling of appreciation helps us to have healthier minds, and with that healthier bodies.
7. An Overall a Better Life
Over the last two decades, the evidence supporting the benefits of gratitude has increased a lot.
Consider this quote from the Wall Street Journal’s article “Thank you, No, Thank you.”
“…adults who feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics.” – Melinda Beck
Aside from increasing well-being, psychology research shows how practicing gratitude, in this case, gratitude towards a higher power, can reduce levels of stress (Krause, 2006). Practicing gratitude can decrease levels of depression and anxiety (Kashdan & Breen, 2007).
8. Stronger Athleticism
Studies from researcher Lung Hung Chen found that an athlete’s level of gratitude for their success can influence their levels of well-being (Chen, 2013; Chen & Wu, 2014). More specifically, adolescent athletes who are more grateful in life are also more satisfied and tend to have higher levels of self-esteem.
Gratitude also affects sports fans (Kim & Jeong, 2015; Kim et al., 2010). Fans’ levels of gratitude influence their happiness, connection, and identity with a team. In turn, stronger fan support and pride can influence the performance and pride of the team itself for representing a greater team.
Teri McKeever has applied these findings to her team, and with incredible success. As the women’s swimming and diving coach at the University of California Berkeley, McKeever has incorporated gratitude exercises into her team practices—and also won three NCAA National Championships in her twenty-year career there.
She discusses why and how she does this in her 15-minute clip:
For McKeever, gratitude exercises help prepare her athletes for productive practice, as well as help foster cohesion within a team. While McKeever is talking about gratitude in the context of a swim team, the lessons she shares can be useful for any sort of leader, whether it is a coach, teacher, manager, or parent.
9. Stronger Neurologically-Based Morality
Neuroscience is beginning to explore what gratitude does to the mysterious human brain.
One study measured the brain’s response to feelings of gratitude with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Fox et al., 2015). These researchers elicited feelings of gratitude in their participants and found that gratitude increased activity in areas of the brain that deal with morality, reward, and judgment.
These neural findings are interesting and beget further studies. Is gratitude associated with morality? If so, this supports why philosophical and religious thinkers have used gratitude in the formation and maintenance of their societies (1991).
It will be interesting to see what is in store for future psychological investigations into gratitude.
The Effects of Gratitude
In a study by McCraty and colleagues (1998), 45 adults were taught to “cultivate appreciation and other positive emotions.”
The results of this study showed that there was a mean 23% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol after the intervention period. 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.
Another study by Seligman, Steen, and Peterson (2005) gave participants one week to write and deliver a letter of thanks, in person, to someone who had been especially kind to them—but who had never been properly thanked. The gratitude visit involves three basic steps:
- First, think of someone who has done something important and wonderful for you, yet who you feel you have not properly thanked.
- Next, reflect on the benefits you received from this person, and write a letter expressing your gratitude for all they have done 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 letter-writing exercise reported more happiness for one month after the intervention compared to a control group.
Expressing gratitude not only helps people appreciate what they’ve received in life, but it also helps people feel like they have given something back to those who helped them.
Hand-delivering a letter of thanks might help absolves residual guilt you might feel for not having thanked this person. This act can foster a sincere, heartfelt interaction that strengthens your relationship, and gives meaning to both parties lives.
Social Effects of Gratitude
Gratitude can be observed at an individual level, with its subsequent effects, or at a greater social level. The recipient of gratitude may not reciprocate directly back, but in turn, may lend a favor to a third party, effectively expanding a network of good (Chang, Lin, & Chen, 2011). Sometimes, the recipient may give back to the initiator as well.
This research supports Fredrickson’s (2004a,b) broaden and build theory, which posits expanding social networks, to build better social support.
Gratitude in Relationships
In a romantic relationship, both partners take actions to please the other one. This can elicit several emotions such as gratitude and indebtedness. Algoe et al. (2010) looked into these two emotions as an emotional response to an intentionally provided benefit.
Gratitude and indebtedness are associated with the intention to repay for the received benefit. It leads to internal motivation and external motivation to reciprocate.
Algoe et al. (2010) asked 67 couples to keep a diary for 2 weeks. The participants had to record their own and their partner’s thoughtful actions, emotions, and “relationship well-being.”
When coupling the data of the two partners, researchers examined if a thoughtful action of the participant was recognized by the partner and if they acknowledged the action accordingly.
Algoe et al. (2010) found that indebtedness did not always prompt reciprocity in actions, but gratitude did.
When these feelings of gratitude are noticed by the partner, the relationship well-being of the partner also increases.
Couples who want to improve their relationship might benefit from writing about their relationship and paying attention to moments of gratitude. Therapists can use this as “homework” for their clients.
Let both partners keep a diary for a few weeks, and discuss the answers in the next therapy consult. Did they recognize and acknowledge what their partner did for them? Why or why not? How did it make them feel?
By practicing the partners can become more aware of the thoughtful actions of their partner and respond to them with gratitude. This exercise can induce an upward spiral and improve the relationship well-being and can be a powerful intervention and communication tool for romantic partners.
Apply It to Your Life
This very evening, before you go to sleep, think of the positive things that happened during the day. Take a moment to do this every night. Consider a gratitude journal as well.
For those struggling with depression or anxiety, this can also frame the beginning of a day: before getting out of bed, consider three things—however small—that they are grateful for. Even on a really hard day, make yourself do this, even if your internal voice is one of sarcasm: just three things.
If you have children, take a moment with them before bed-time to ask them to think about something they’re grateful for themselves. Set a good example by sharing what you’re grateful for, as this shows children the importance of the practice.
If you feel that you have neglected to thank someone in your life, maybe write them a letter explaining your gratitude. Deliver it in person, if possible. Who knows what impact this will have on both of your days, and lives.
All of these actions, however little, help shape a culture of gratitude. For more on this topic, we have Emmons video here on “Cultivating Gratitude.”
A Take-Home Message
Modern psychology research confirms that gratitude is an important social emotion that can benefit the lives of religious people who practice gratitude, and that practicing gratitude can also benefit non-religious people.
Gratitude is a human emotion that can be most simply defined as appreciation or acknowledgment of an altruistic act.
For the purposes of positive psychology, gratitude is a tool for increasing well-being. The benefits of practicing gratitude are not linked to any sort of pathology or religion, but rather, linked to a desire to build people and societies that are healthy and thriving.
There are so many ways to practice gratitude, as the previous paragraphs explained. Maybe it is a gratitude journal, or maybe it is acting kindly towards a stranger because someone did that for you.
Next time you have a free moment, try practicing some gratitude. You might just be surprised by the benefits it brings you. As always, let us know your thoughts and experiences with this valuable emotion.
We look forward to reading your comments below.
For further reading, see:
- The 20 Best TED Talks And Videos on The Power of Gratitude
- 5 Best Books on Gratitude + Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude Book
- The #1 Reason Why We Want More And More (And More)
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching or workplace.
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