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The Science Of Gratitude

by Misty Pratt: Research shows gratitude isn’t just a pleasant feeling—being grateful can also support greater health, happiness, and wisdom in ourselves and our communities…


Gratitude offers us a way of embracing all that makes our lives what they are. More than just a happy feeling for the parts of our lives currently going our way, gratitude encompasses the willingness to expand our attention so that we perceive more of the goodness we are always receiving.

In the past two decades, a growing body of evidence in the field of social science has found that gratitude has measurable benefits for just about every area of our lives. Gratitude appears to contribute substantially to individual well-being and physical health. So much so that the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley—a leader in research on the science of social and emotional well-being—describes gratitude as the “social glue” key to building and nurturing strong relationships.

Gratitude helps people realize that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others.

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and one of the world’s leading experts on the science of gratitude, defines gratitude as having two parts. The first is an affirmation of goodness: People can learn to wake up to the good around them and notice the gifts they have received. The second part of gratitude is recognizing that the source of this goodness rests outside of oneself—that we receive these gifts from other people, and sometimes from a higher power, fate, or the natural world. In other words, gratitude helps people realize that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others.

A Brain Built On Gratitude

Gratitude is more than just a momentary good feeling. Scientists who have studied written gratitude interventions, such as gratitude letters or journals, have found benefits for an individual’s mental health and well-being. Gratitude practices also appear to help you feel more satisfied in life and can boost your self-esteem, according to peer-reviewed research.

The Science: Feel Happier

In one study involving nearly 300 adults seeking counseling services at a university, one randomized group wrote a gratitude letter each week for three weeks. The gratitude group reported significantly better mental health (compared to the control group) at follow-up, 12 weeks after the last writing exercise. Another type of written gratitude practice is counting blessings, or “Three Good Things.”A study of this practice found that people who wrote down three things that had gone well in their day and identified the causes of those good things were significantly happier and less depressed, even six months after the study ended.

How It Works: Strengthen Positive Recall

How exactly do these practices work to improve our mental well-being?

In general, people are more cognitively aware of their “headwinds” (or barriers they face) than “tailwinds” (benefits they receive). By paying more attention to our tailwinds, studies have shown that we can accentuate feelings of happiness, optimism, and positive emotion.

“Strengthening your positive recall bias makes it easier to see the good things around you even when times are dark,” says Nancy Davis Kho, author of the book The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time. Nancy set a lofty goal of writing 50 thank-you letters to people in her life and found that the practice improved her ability to weather some of life’s bigger challenges.

At first, Nancy found it difficult to come up with a list of 50 people. After she got started on the letters, the practice naturally boosted positive emotion and she was able to extend her gratitude well beyond her family and friends. Nancy encourages those writing gratitude letters to find “the creative people whose work carries you beyond yourself, whose vision helps you clarify your own, whose talent and hard work have combined to create a body of work that brings you simple joy.”

Why Practice: Deepen Resilience

Enduring gratitude is not just about happiness and positivity; it doesn’t require you to ignore or stifle negative emotions. In the book The Gratitude Project: How the Science of Thankfulness Can Rewire Our Brains for Resilience, Optimism, and the Greater GoodRobert Emmons writes that “practicing gratitude magnifies positive feelings more than it reduces negative feelings.” Gratitude helps you see the bigger picture and become more resilient in the face of adversity.

Nourish a Grateful Body

When digging into the science of gratitude, we begin to see there are more dimensions to this emotion than meet the eye. In the scientific literature, gratitude is studied in several different ways:

  • Trait gratitude, which refers to whether people have a natu- rally grateful personality. Gratitude as a mood, which tracks daily fluctuations in gratitude.
  • Gratitude as an emotion, which describes a passing feeling of gratitude (when receiving a thank-you letter, for example).

The “practice” of gratitude and the interventions that scientists use in their studies are activities designed to boost gratitude as a mood or emotion.

The Science: Boost Immunity and Heart Health

Research published in the last decade has shown that grateful people (those who have “trait gratitude”) have fewer common health complaints, such as headaches, digestion issues, respiratory infections, runny noses, dizziness, and sleep problems. It appears that practicing gratitude could also help to alleviate those pesky health problems. In one study, a group of college students who wrote about things they were grateful for once per week for 10 weeks reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headaches, shortness of breath, sore muscles, and nausea) compared to two other control groups.

How It Works: Calm the Nervous System

“Physiological changes associated with gratitude are typically a reduction in blood pressure and increase
in vagal tone, which is taken as an index of increased parasympathetic influence on the peripheral nervous system,” says Dr. Emiliana Simon- Thomas, Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center. The parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that allows our body to “rest and digest”) can help you conserve energy by slowing the heart rate, stimulating digestion, and contributing to overall relaxation.

This soothing of the nervous system may be one mechanism by which gratitude works to calm the body. A study of heart-failure patients who were randomly assigned to either an eight-week gratitude-journaling group or a treatment-as-usual group found that patients in the gratitude group showed more parasympathetic heart-rate variability, which is a sign of better heart health.

Why Practice: Make Healthier Choices

Strange as it may seem, gratitude can also encourage us to fuel our bodies with nourishing foods. Research shows grateful people report better physical health because they tend to engage in healthy activities such as focusing on nutrition. “We have found that getting people to express gratitude could help them work toward healthier eating behaviors, like more fruits and vegetables and less junk food,” says Lisa Walsh, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in social/personality psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, whose graduate studies included research with Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Positive Activities and Well-Being (PAW) Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. In one of the PAW lab’s studies, high school students preselected a healthy eating goal and were asked to either write weekly gratitude letters or list their daily activities. Teens who expressed gratitude reported healthier eating behavior over time compared to those who just listed their activities. Other studies of people’s physical health outcomes have found that gratitude journaling can lead to better-quality sleep and lowered blood pressure.

Thankful to Those We Love

In addition to giving individual benefits, gratitude may also help to strengthen ties with friends, loved ones, and those in our wider communities. The find-remind-bind theory, first proposed by psychologist Sara Algoe—an associate professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—suggests that gratitude can help people identify good candidates for a new relationship (find), appreciate existing relationships (remind), and motivate people to maintain or invest in these relationships (bind). As Sara writes in a 2012 paper on her theory, “Gratitude starts inside one individual and its effects spread to a dyadic relationship and perhaps throughout a social network.”

The Science: Stronger Connections

“Social connection is likely key to well-being,” says Lisa Walsh. She explains that gratitude might not be an emotion that just makes people feel good; it appears to have social implications by motivating individuals to improve themselves. In an upcoming study from the PAW Laboratory at UC-Riverside, high school students who expressed gratitude had a mixed experience—they felt “elevated” (a positive emotion) and indebted. Immediately after writing their gratitude letters, the students also felt motivated to improve themselves.

Find-remind-bind theory suggests that expressing gratitude may prompt individuals to pay back the kindness they have received, and can also motivate a person to make decisions that will strengthen their relationships. Gratitude may increase a person’s desire to spend more time with someone, and it encourages prosocial behaviors.

How It Works: Better Communication

Gratitude also plays an important role in maintaining romantic relationships, acting as a “booster shot” to remind us why our partners are valuable and worth holding onto. By practicing gratitude, couples can initiate a cycle of generosity—one partner’s gratitude inspires the other to act in a way that reaffirms their commitment. One study found that receiving a thoughtful gesture from a partner was followed by increased feelings of gratitude and indebtedness. Experiencing gratitude from these acts of kindness led both partners to feel more connected and satisfied with their relationship the next day.

While many studies have examined the effects of writing gratitude, all the ways we communicate—letters, conversation, and social media—are avenues for expressing gratitude. Gratitude may also open the door to healthier communication styles within a relationship. Since the practice leads to more positive perceptions of our partners, friends, or family (and likely, greater trust), we may feel more comfortable talking through disagreements. In one study, participants who expressed gratitude toward a romantic partner or close friend reported greater ease when voicing relationship concerns in the future.

Why Practice: It’s Better Together

“Gratitude has made our family closer,” says Randi Joy, a chiropractor and life coach living in Ottawa. She’s been practicing gratitude with her family for about five years. “When we talk about our gratefulness and what we’re grateful for…we have a better connection,” she says. Whether it’s a gratitude walk where they discuss what they’re grateful for, or a list of their “gratefuls” at the dinner table, Randi’s family takes every opportunity to practice together.

Whether you hope to boost your mood and mental health, protect your physical health, or improve your personal relationships, a rich body of research in the field of social sciences has found that gratitude offers significant benefits. The takeaway: Cultivating gratitude can open the door to a different perspective-one that values the goodness in our lives. With practice, we can learn to see the bigger picture and navigate adversity with greater resilience.

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