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5 Ways Science Increases Gratitude & Well-Being

Giacomo Bono

Research shows that gratitude is one of the easiest character traits to intentionally cultivate through disciplines and practices.

Assistant Professor of Psychology
June 16, 2014

Gratitude is highly prized. A small sampling of quotes reveals the power and potential of this virtue. In the Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude Sarah Breathnach writes, “Whatever you are in search of—peace of mind, prosperity, health, love—it is waiting for you if only you are willing to receive it with an open and grateful heart.” Elsewhere she refers to gratitude as “the most passionate transformative force in the cosmos.” Another popular treatment of the topic refers to gratitude as “one of the most empowering, healing, dynamic instruments of consciousness vital to demonstrating the life experiences one desires.” Lock and key metaphors are also common; gratitude has been referred to as “the key that opens all doors,” that which “unlocks the fullness of life,” and the “key to abundance, prosperity, and fulfillment.”

How do these extraordinary claims regarding the power and promise of gratitude fare under the scrutiny of a scientific lens? Can gratitude live up to such claims?

Is Gratitude Really That Important for Happiness?

Gratitude is foundational to well-being and mental health throughout the life span. From childhood to old age, evidence shows many psychological, physical, and relational benefits associated with gratitude. Children and adults with grateful personalities tend to live happier and more satisfied lives. Why though? Research shows that people with grateful personalities tend to have more prosocial qualities such as empathy, forgiveness, and willingness to help others. Not surprisingly, grateful people experience and encourage more positive social interactions, which helps creates more loving and supportive communities. In such environments people not only feel accepted but motivated to behave better toward themselves (e.g., going to the gym more) and others (e.g., willingness to sacrificing to help a friend). All of this introduces structure, positivity, and stability in the community, improving the adjustment and well-being of everyone involved. And research continues to find other benefits of gratitude, such as better and longer sleep, improved coping with stress, more engaged students and less burnout among employees.

But here’s the exciting part. Even if you’re not a highly grateful person, research also shows that gratitude tends to be one of the easiest character strengths to grow. And gratitude is one habit you may want to pick up sooner than later. We’re finding that one reason for its many personal and social benefits may be that it’s linked to improved self-control. So how can you boost your gratefulness in life? Fortunately, research also provides some tips.

5 Empirically Tested Gratitude Interventions 

Let’s consider some of the evidence from widely-used gratitude interventions for adults. (In case you’ve never participated in a psychological study, an intervention is a method psychologists use to promote change or growth for an individual.)

1. Counting Blessings: Keeping a Gratitude Journal

In a classic gratitude intervention study by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough in 2003, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: counting blessings, listing hassles, or a no-treatment control on a weekly basis (experiment 1). Those who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or mundane, emotionally-neutral events in their journals.

A second experiment was similar except journaling was done daily for two weeks and instead of a control condition a downward social comparison condition was used (people were told write about ways they were more fortunate than others or about things they had that others did not) to see if gratitude’s advantages were due to more than just feeling better off than others. Participants kept journals according to the condition they were randomly assigned to (counting blessings, listing hassles, or making downward social comparisons) and completed questionnaires about physical health and psychological well-being. Again, people who kept a gratitude journal showed more personal benefits; they reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy compared to those in the hassles or downward social comparison conditions.

Results from both of these experiments also showed relational benefits. Individuals in the gratitude condition (counting blessings) reported helping someone with a personal problem or offering emotional support to another more than those in the others conditions. Therefore, compared to focusing on complaints or on one’s good fortune, an effective strategy for feeling better, happier, and becoming more helpful is to reflect on the things in life for which one is grateful.

In a third experiment, participants with neuromuscular disease were assigned to either the gratitude condition (i.e., counting blessings) or control condition daily but this time for three weeks. Similarly, they completed journals and questions about their emotions, happiness, and health behaviors. Results again showed that people in the gratitude journaling condition experienced greater happiness, were more optimistic, and felt more connected to others than those in the control condition. Furthermore, not only did participants sleep longer and better but differences in their moods and life satisfaction were even reported by their spouses!

2. “Three Good Things”

The benefits of gratitude can also be long lasting. Another study by Martin Seligman and his colleagues in 2005 compared the efficacy of five different interventions that were hypothesized to increase personal happiness and decrease personal depression. Participants randomly assigned to the “Three Good Things” intervention were instructed to write down three good things that had happened to them and attribute causes to these events daily for one week. Although this intervention showed no immediate benefits, participants reported lasting effects with an increase in happiness and decrease in depressive symptoms six months later.

This suggests that you should not just focus on positive events in your life but focus actively on the people responsible for those events as well. Doing so can help you feel loved and cared for rather than alone and helpless.

3. The “Gratitude Visit” and the Importance of Sharing Thanks

Expressing gratitude through thank you letters fosters a deep appreciation of others and also encourages a grateful orientation. In the Seligman study mentioned above, which compared five positive psychology interventions, some of the participants were assigned to write and personally deliver a thank you letter to a person for whom they were grateful. Individuals who completed this activity reported large gains in happiness and reductions in depression one month later. Though short-lived compared to the six-month effects of the “Three Good Things” activities, this activity produced the largest changes out of all the interventions tested. To date, the gratitude visit remains the most potent positive psychology intervention in terms of amount of change. Thus, taking the time to write a meaningful thank you letter to an important person in your life and then reading the letter to that person is an easy way to get a quick boost in happiness.

Recent findings from other gratitude researchers—such as Nathan Lambert, Sara Algoe, and Amie Gordon—are showing that gratitude doesn’t just bring personal well-being, but that it makes one more constructive in romantic and marital relationships. For instance, sharing gratitude with a partner improves sensitivity and concern towards the partner and strengthens commitment and feelings of connection to the partner, leading to more satisfying relationships. Gratitude, then, impacts how constructively and positively you behave toward relationship partners as well.

4. Grateful Self-Reflection to Become Better

In a cross-cultural intervention study in 2010, David Chan worked with Chinese teachers who voluntarily participated in an eight-week long “self-improvement project” aimed at increasing individual self-awareness through the process of self-reflection. Participants’ gratitude, life satisfaction, happiness, meaning derived from life, and burnout (emotionally drained and depersonalized at work) were assessed. They were also asked to record three good things that had occurred each week and then reflected on these positive occurrences using Naikan-meditation inspired questions. Naikan-meditation represents a form of reflection that not only focuses on the self but also on others. Participants were asked to meditate on the following questions: What did I receive, What did I give? What more could I do? These questions not only appeared to orient the individual to think gratefully but also to be more prosocial (e.g., What more could I do?). Teachers who were more grateful at the start of the intervention, compared with those who were less grateful,  reported more gratitude by the end of the intervention, suggesting that having a grateful disposition might make one more receptive to gratitude intervention. Further, teachers who were more grateful at the start of the intervention, compared with those who were less grateful, also reported less teacher burnout and considered meaning in life to be more important by the end of the intervention. This study shows how gratitude, self-improvement, and generosity can complement each other and not only build up resilience but lead to greater fulfilment in life.

5. Choosing Well-Being Activities that Fit You

In another cross-cultural study in 2011 Julia Boehm and her colleagues assessed cultural differences in life satisfaction among foreign-born Asian Americans and Anglo-Americans who participated in an online well-being intervention. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: practicing optimism, expressing gratitude, and listing experiences from the past week (which served as the control condition). In the optimism condition, participants wrote about “their best possible life in the future,” and in the gratitude condition participants wrote letters of appreciation to those with whom they were grateful.

Cultural differences were observed in both the optimism and gratitude conditions. Overall, Anglo-Americans benefited most from the interventions, experiencing the greatest changes in life satisfaction. For Asian Americans, the gratitude intervention produced modest increases in life satisfaction over time, but the optimism condition produced very little change in life satisfaction. This suggests that gratitude activities with a collectivist orientation (i.e., focus on family or community) may be more beneficial in non-American cultures than activities with an individualistic orientation (i.e., focus on self and personal accomplishments).

Such findings are consistent with the work of Sonja Lyumbomirsky and her colleagues, which shows that factors such as motivation, effort, and willingness, may also contribute to the benefits that derive from gratitude interventions. That is, it’s important to choose activities that match your preference and style, because those are the kinds of activities you are most likely to enjoy and maintain, which will in turn impact your habits the most.