Wisdom//

Once More, with Feeling: How Gratitude Keeps on Giving

Gratitude is a powerful emotion. It has been shown to improve mental and physical health, and may even help us live longer. Perhaps most importantly, gratitude has a wonderful ripple effect, spreading positive outcomes to our friends, our family, and others we love.

Gratitude is a powerful emotion.  It has been shown to improve mental and physical health, and may even help us live longer.  Perhaps most importantly, gratitude has a wonderful ripple effect, spreading positive outcomes to our friends, our family, and others we love.

Described as the “parent of all virtues,” gratitude is a feeling of deeper appreciation for the positive occurrences in one's life that can be attributed to another person (Ahrens & Forbes, 2011, 2014). The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. Gratitude does not have to be tied to grand gestures, however. Sometimes, the most unassuming of acts are the most meaningful. And, saying just what it means to you is often the most heartfelt and can produce the biggest impact. It could be as simple as saying, “you remembered my favorite color.” These small gestures promote big feelings that continue to grow and expand, between and within people.

So how and why does gratitude keep on giving? Read below to see how gratitude is important for relationships and resilience.

Relationships:  Gratitude Connects Us

One of the strongest effects of being grateful to others is that it strengthens our personal relationships. When we feel fortunate for our friends and loved ones, we reinforce the bond between these relationships. Saying thank you to others signals: “I value you.”

It is not just experiencing gratitude, but expressing gratitude that enhances relationships (Algoe, 2010). This is important because having a strong support network is critical for survival. According to this research, gratitude helps us “find, remind, and bind” ... essentially, it helps us find whom we can trust; it solidifies the bonds we have with our loved ones; and it reminds us that we have someone valuable we can count on ... all of which can enhance our physical and mental health.

In one study, couples who have been together for at least 5 years, were instructed to either talk about mundane details of their life (control condition) or express gratitude to one another (experimental condition).  They were instructed to have these conversations 4-6 times over a course of a month.  Those who expressed gratitude reported stronger relationships, they were more adaptable to change, and had overall positivity, compared to those in the control condition.  In another study, it was found that expressing and receiving gratitude is associated with increased oxytocin among relationship partners (Algoe & Way, 2014). Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, popularly known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, generosity and affection.

Importantly, the ripple effects of gratitude on relationships might be due, in part, to witnessing the grateful acts of others. Expressing gratitude to others may serve as signals to others that the individual wants to preserve this relationship (e.g., DeSteno, Condon, & Dickens, 2016; Williams & Bartlett, 2014). Whenever you have an interaction with a friend or romantic partner, that feeling you have when you walk away sets the stage for the next interaction with that person.  In this way, gratitude helps to be the “glue” that binds individuals closer together.

Resilience:  Gratitude Restores Us

There is no doubt that we live in a time of heightened anxiety. Wherever you work or live, stress is on the rise. Mounting stressors include global challenges, such as political unrest, climate change, interpersonal conflicts, and social injustice. As well, we have personal and professional challenges, such as illnesses, job changes, and occupational reorganization. In today's world, it is the most critical time to build resilience.

Feeling a sense of gratitude in the midst of adversity is a source of resilience. How? It replenishes us. Simply put, stress is taxing.  It drains us from valuable physical and mental resources that are useful to our health and survival.  Research has shown that positive emotions, such as gratitude, have the unique capacity to rejuvenate us when we are depleted by stress (Tugade, Devlin, & Fredrickson, 2016).  Simply taking a moment to pause and reflect on what’s good in one’s life can be restorative.  Appreciating and savoring even the most simple of joys (a beautiful sunset; the sound of soft rain) can serve as an antidote to anxiety and therefore restore us. 

There are two main reasons why gratitude helps to replenish us in times of stress. First, gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life, thereby affirming that life has elements that make it worth living. Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness is at least partially outside the self. When we focus on the kindness of others, it gives us a sense of our social support network (Emmons, 2007).

On a larger scale, gratitude can help people cope with traumatic events. Years ago, my colleagues and I conducted some of the first studies on coping in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003). We examined positive emotions that emerged in the wake of the tragedy.  We found that emotions such as gratitude contributed to psychological resilience in survivors.  People might have felt grateful to be alive or to know that their loved ones were safe, which in turn, helped resulted lower levels of depression following the attacks. Related research on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shows that people who have greater dispositional gratitude evidence lower symptoms of PTSD among high-risk populations, including police officers after Hurricane Katrina; Vietnam war veterans; as well as undergraduate women with trauma histories (Kashdan, Uswatte, & Julian, 2006;  McCanlies, Mnatsakanova, Andrew, Burchfiel, & Violanti, 2014; Vernon, Dillon, & Steiner, 2009).  Gratitude fuels resilience by serving as a protective factor against trauma.

Gratitude not only facilitates psychological resilience; it helps to enhance physical resilience as well. A host of studies show that grateful people across the lifespan and across cultures report fewer health symptoms than their less grateful counterparts (such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory infections, and immune system functioning) and they engage in healthy behaviors (exercise, adherence to medication, etc.).  Fostering "positive affect skills" like gratitude may improve health and enhance greater longevity (Moskowitz, 2014).

We all know that getting a good night's sleep is important for our health, and research shows that grateful people have better sleep: sleep quality, sleep duration, and sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep).  Additionally, being grateful is related to feelings of vitality and refreshment upon waking. This is due to “pre-sleep cognitions.” Grateful people have fewer negative thoughts and more positive cognitions prior to going to sleep, which together explain better sleep overall.  So, before going to bed each night, take a moment of reflection, and consider things that inspire gratitude and appreciation over the course of the day (Wood, Joseph, & Atkin, 2009).

Lingering questions arise from these studies:  Does gratitude cause good health or does good health cause people to feel more grateful? Indeed, while these studies suggest that grateful people are physically healthier, they could also suggest that those with poorer health are less likely to feel grateful. To tease apart this relationship, researchers have explored whether people who engage in gratitude behaviors benefit from improved health.

One experiment showed that the direction of causality is this:  Partaking in gratitude-enhancing activities predicts improvements in physical health. Participants who wrote about things they were grateful for (just once a week for 10 weeks) reported fewer physical symptoms, such as headaches, shortness of breath, sore muscles, and nausea, compared to those who wrote about daily hassles in their lives (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).  In summary, these studies show that having a grateful outlook can help to replenish and restore us, both physically and mentally, especially when we are overburdened by stress.  

How to Cultivate Gratitude

The benefits of practicing gratitude are profound. Below are some examples that have been shown to be particularly beneficial, and can easily be shared with friends, children, colleagues, and loved ones.

Write a Gratitude Letter

I teach a psychology course at Vassar College on “The Science of Health and Happiness.”  Around the Thanksgiving holiday (as well as other times of the year), one assignment I have my students complete is a “gratitude letter.” Bring to mind someone who did something for you, for which you have been grateful, but to whom you never fully expressed your gratitude.  Write a letter, describing where you are now in life, and how often you remember his or her efforts.  If possible, deliver the letter in person (or via phone or video chat), read the letter of gratitude, and then give the letter to this special person before you leave.  Expressing gratitude provides benefits for the receiver and the expresser.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Write down up to five things for which you feel grateful, and do this for at least two weeks. This can be about things that are small and ordinary (“I had an extra hour of sleep today”) or these can have a large impact (“My dear friend arrived safely from a long journey”). Don’t force your writing, and don’t feel compelled to write every single day. Just feel genuine when doing so and when the authentic feeling emerges. Studies suggest that writing occasionally in a gratitude journal (1-3 times per week) might have a greater impact on our well-being than daily journaling. You can even keep a photo journal:  Take pictures of things that makes you feel grateful (a picture is worth a thousand words) . The goal of the exercise is to remember a good event or person in your life and experience the outflow of positive emotions that arise from it.

Pay Attention

You don’t have to search for extraordinary moments in your world; these moments may be right before your very eyes ... if you simply pay attention.  Practicing gratitude is a mindset that changes the perspective of how you see the world around you.  People often get stuck focusing on the negative aspects of our daily lives.  Getting “unstuck” with gratitude may be useful. Take a moment to notice the ordinary moments that bring contentment and joy. Research shows that expressing gratitude bolsters its benefits. So, when you see something that inspires gratitude, let others know, offering them the gift of your appreciation. As the poet Mary Oliver said beautifully, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” 

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