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The academic study of happiness has gathered a lot of momentum in the last five years. There’s Bhutan’s Gross Happiness Index, Canada has its Index of Well-Being, and the UK is working on its own national happiness measurement. In the wealth of research that now surrounds happiness, gratitude is emerging as a vital missing link. Research is showing what spiritual and religious practices have long known: it is good to give thanks – good for the body, for the mind; it’s good for one’s community, and it’s good for the soul.
One pioneer in the research boom is the Greater Good Science Center, which has a $3 million grant to expand scientific understanding of gratitude and its role in health, development and social well-being. Researchers are looking into gratitude and its effects on stress, sleep, health, aging, community and resilience, its role in children and youth, ways to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude,” the list goes on. There are results already showing how an attitude of gratitude reduces stress hormones in blood, improves sleep, encourages physical activity and is helpful in the face of adversity.
But what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in the field (and whose work this article is based on) defines it as “a sense of thankfulness and joy in response to receiving a gift, whether the gift be a tangible benefit from a specific other or a moment of peaceful bliss evoked by natural beauty”. It is an emotion or emotional trait, and Emmons calls this trait a tendency towards gratitude, or an “attitude of gratitude.” In this definition there is a distinction between feeling grateful to someone for something and feeling grateful for more abstract things such as life or nature. The first is the gratitude one feels towards specific people for help they have given, specifically help that has been given intentionally. The second is a general sense of appreciation for the positive aspects of life. Both involve feeling like the recipient of unearned benefit, which is in contrast to a victim mentality or a sense of entitlement or deservedness.
Emmons suggests that it is actually impossible to simultaneously feel both entitled and grateful, and that gratitude is therefore a way to combat negative emotions. Deepak Chopra agrees that ego and gratitude cannot be held in mind simultaneously; however, when feeling grateful to someone or something, there is an important distinction between gratitude and indebtedness. One study suggests that people who feel grateful to someone are happier and healthier compared to those who feel indebted by the same kindness.
Gratitude is a cognitively complex emotion that involves appraising the intent of and cost to the giver and the benefit of the receiver. It is thought to develop between seven and ten years of age. One study of Halloween “trick or treating” found kids under the age of six thanked an adult for giving them candy noticeably less than kids over ten. Another study with children showed that five-year-olds, after being shown a vignette of a new student being picked to join the basketball team by the captain, were equally likely to award the captain a gift regardless of whether it was a kind gesture (intentional) or a team rule (unintentional); however, ten and eleven-year-olds were more likely to give the captain a gift only if the new kid had been intentionally selected. This suggests both the age range of the development of gratitude and the relationship between seeing a benefactor’s act as intentional and feeling grateful. Another study shows that as they age, adolescents become less egocentric and more able to empathize, and the ability to empathize is a strong factor in the development of gratitude.
As we begin to realize how helpful an attitude of gratitude can be for health and well-being, the question becomes: where does a tendency of gratitude come from and how can we become more grateful? One final hypothesis about the foundations of gratitude suggests that a tendency towards gratitude has its roots in infancy, but only if envy does not overpower its development. Both envy and enjoyment (thought to be a foundation for gratitude) have their roots in the mother-child bond. Whereas a child who is deprived of physical or emotional nourishment develops envy, a child experiencing adequate love and nourishment develops a capacity for joy. This is a somewhat controversial hypothesis because it lacks empirical support. And, while some consider infancy a plausible stage in the development of gratitude, others disagree and suggest that gratitude emerges over time through a child’s interaction with its environment. What is not controversial and is shown in many studies is that we can, at any age, cultivate in ourselves a tendency towards gratitude.
The benefits of gratitude.
In several studies, participants were split into three groups. The members of the first group kept a gratitude journal in which they would write five things each week they were grateful for. Those in the second group recorded five observations, and those in the final group recorded five hassles or frustrations per week. The results showed that within three weeks, the group practicing gratitude benefitted from positive changes in physical and mental health. Emmon’s talks of “practicing gratitude” as training one’s mind to see the positive things. It’s a practice and needs to be cultivated. His studies of over 1,000 people have found physical, psychological and social benefits.
• Physical benefits, a stronger immune system, less bothered by aches and pains, lower blood pressure, greater tendency to exercise and maintain health, better sleep and feeling more refreshed upon waking.
• Psychological benefits, higher levels of positive emotions, more alert and awake, increased joy, increased optimism and happiness.
• Perhaps the most interesting are the social benefits he has found, with people who practice gratitude being more helpful and generous, more forgiving, more outgoing, and feeling less lonely and isolated compared with his other study groups.
Emmons and his research group place the main benefits of gratitude in four categories:
1. Grateful people celebrate the present.
2. Gratitude blocks toxic negative emotions. For example, it is impossible to feel grateful and envious at the same time.
3. Grateful people are more stress-resistant. Many studies show that grateful people recover from trauma more easily, perhaps because it gives a perspective from which to perceive events.
4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. This comes from a sense that someone else is looking out for them, so they must be worth something.
Another interesting angle on the benefits of gratitude is the way it challenges dominant psychological patterns. We are often taught to believe that we get what we deserve, or, in other words, if something good happens, we’ve earned it. There is often a self-serving bias in this, that if something goes wrong we blame others (or perhaps we blame ourselves and refuse to forgive ourselves). Gratitude works against this by broadening our perspective to include the people and events that have helped and supported us.
Getting more grateful.
The next question is how to become more grateful, or how to practice gratitude. Luckily there are a number of resources, one of which is the “Ways to Become More Grateful” list that Robert Emmons published on the Greater Good website.
Here are a few of the tips:
1. Keep a gratitude journal. Set aside time, ideally a daily practice, to remind yourself of the gifts and good things you enjoy
2. Remember the bad. It can be helpful to remember the tough times you’ve had. These can remind you how far you’ve come and encourage gratefulness.
3. Learn prayers of gratitude. These are considered by many spiritual traditions to be the most powerful form of prayer.
4. Come to your senses. Through touch, taste, sight, smell and sound we are reminded what it is to be human, what a gift our bodies are and the miracle it is to be alive.
5. Use visual reminders. The two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and lack of mindful awareness, so use visual reminders – other people are often the best reminders.
6. Make a vow to practice gratitude. Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood it will be done, so write a gratitude vow: “I will count my blessings every day”.
7. Watch your language. Grateful people often use the language of gifts, blessings, fortune, abundance, focusing on the good things others have done for them.
8. Go through the motions. By going through the motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. Grateful motions include smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude or thank you letters.
While some argue that scientific research on gratitude is a waste of time, others suggest it is the missing link in discussions about happiness and is well worth researching. As the results come in, it seems that looking closely at gratitude and its influence in our lives is highly fruitful. And as the research around gratitude grows, it will be interesting to keep an eye out for further techniques to nourish gratitude and create environments that stimulate it. The Greater Good research center has some great resources and I highly recommend it for further reading. It is a great way to stay abreast on the latest developments.