Gratitude and Well-Being

By: Karen P. Carlson, PhD

The fall/winter season is a time where people from a variety of cultural, religious and ethnic traditions engage in celebrations and rituals focusing on acts and expressions of gratitude.  Sometimes the gratitude and thankfulness is directed to a higher power and is thus considered a spiritual virtue.  Sometimes it is focused on the life forces and provisions given from people and the natural world.  In this sense gratitude is seen as a social virtue, a positive personality trait that helps one interact with the world in positive ways (Sansalone & Sansalone, 2010; Emmons & McCollough, 2003).  Religious leaders and psychologists agree that gratitude involves attitudes, emotions and actions that are given unconditionally, not when deserved.  The word gratitude stems from the Latin word gratia, meaning grace, graciousness, gratefulness (www.merriam-webster.com).  Gratitude is something that is both given and received.

Many of us view this season as a time to be grateful, regardless of culture, ethnic or religious orientation.   Experts agree that those who are grateful are happier and healthier. This can be difficult, as holidays also bring feelings of stress, emptiness,  and loss for many of us.  We can feel guilty when we struggle to be grateful. 

Researchers have found that gratitude is not just a feeling but a behavior or habit that can be practiced and strengthened (Sansalone & Sansalone, 2010).  There is evidence that the behaviors, emotions and attitudes associated with gratitude can improve your life and those around you.  Gratitude is made up of many small behaviors and actions.  Small actions can produce strong results.

An example of a research study on gratitude comes from Emmons and McCollough (2003), experts in the field of happiness and well-being.  The authors’ predicted that the practice of gratitude would have a positive impact on well-being measures.  Three groups of college students were asked to do different types of journaling.  Group 1 made a list of life events (just what happened, not commenting on feelings), group 2 made a list of negative life events, and group 3 made a list of things they felt grateful for.  The students also completed questionnaires about mood, sleep, exercise, social support and physical symptoms.  The study showed that the group who made the gratitude lists scored higher on these measures of well-being than those who made the other lists. 

There are many other studies making the case that acts of gratitude make people happier and healthier. Together they make up a discipline known as positive psychology (for more info click the link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/positive-psychology).

There are many opinions in the field about why gratitude has the impact that it does.   One idea that makes sense to me is that doing things for others and appreciating what we have makes us feel more hopeful and better about ourselves.  It gives us the positive energy we need to move forward with life. 

So. Gratitude. It’s good for us.  How do we do it?

Here are some suggested ways to practice gratitude from the experts.  Remember, the act of gratitude is as powerful as the feeling. You will benefit from doing it, even if you don’t feel like it.

Each day or even just a few times a week, make a list of three things you are grateful for.  Be specific.

  • Savor pleasurable things; for example, think about why you appreciate your morning coffee, pay extra time and attention to it while drinking it.
  • Write a thank you note to someone who has been especially supportive of you. Again, be specific, savor reading it, notice how your body feels when doing this (we do things more when they feel good).
  • Make even a small donation to a cause you care about.  Or volunteer a little time.
  • Perform an act of grace upon another (for example, random act of kindness).
  • Consider the potential benefit of a higher power.  Scientists and the religious community agree on the value of this for mental health and well-being.

 For more simple ideas see resources below:      

 

References:

Eamons, R.A., McMcollough, M. E. (2003).  Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of well-being in daily life.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 184 (2), 377-389

Sansalone, R.A., & Sansalone, L.A. (2010). Gratitude and Well Being.  Psychiatry, Nov 2010, pp. 18-22

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/

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