Scientists Show Gratitude Improves Our Lives
A neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston says scientific evidence proves feeling thankful and expressing gratitude improves our personal and professional relationships and in the long-run makes us happier. Psychology Professor David DeSteno is the author of "Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride."
“Beautiful evolutionary models have shown that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing,” said DeSteno in an interview on the WBUR public radio program On Point.
Other researchers, including Joel Wong and Joshua Brown at Indiana University, are also reporting results of a study showing practicing gratitude has positive effects on our outlook and our daily lives. They found that a gratitude writing exercise had beneficial effects on those seeking mental health counseling for anxiety and depression.
What is Gratitude?
"Gratitude is an emotion that we feel when we believe that someone or something has given us something that we couldn't easily achieve on our own,” said DeSteno. “It's there to change what we do next. People tend to think that gratitude is this passive thing. But the reason we have any emotion is because it's designed to change what we do next. So gratitude reminds us that other people — our parents, our friends, our family — have helped us, and therefore we feel that emotion and it makes us want to pay them back and to go above and beyond.”
"Gratitude is entirely about the future, not the past,” said DeSteno. “What it does is, when you feel grateful, it makes you willing to accept sacrifices to help other people, those who have helped you or even to pay it forward."
A practical clinical definition of gratitude, from a research report in the journal Psychiatry is,“Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself. It is a general state of thankfulness or appreciation.” That report concludes that, “the majority of empirical studies indicate that there is an association between gratitude and a sense of overall well being.”
Scientific Findings on Gratitude
In a recent study involving nearly 300 adults, mostly college students seeking mental health counseling, two researchers at Indiana University recruited participants before their first counseling session.
Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Joel Wong and Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences Joshua Brown reported the majority of those seeking counseling were struggling with issues related to depression and anxiety.
Participants were divided into three groups. One group wrote a letter of gratitude to someone else each week for three weeks. The second group journaled about their negative experiences and the third group did not do any writing activity.
The findings suggest the power of an “attitude of gratitude.” Those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns.
“In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief,” report the researchers.
5 Strategies to Enhance Feelings of Gratitude
Some simple practices to enhance gratitude cost nothing and have been shown to have positive effects on attitude and life satisfaction. Here are just a few suggestions.
- Journal each morning or evening about things for which you’re grateful.
- Write and send a letter to someone expressing thankfulness for something they’ve done that you’re thankful for.
- Meditate on gratitude. Practice in-the-moment mindfulness about things you’re thankful for in your current life, including things you might often take for granted, like having a home, a family, a job, seeing a beautiful flower or tree, having a devoted pet or the pleasure of talking with a friend.
- Say “thank you” to others in a thoughtful and sincere way.
- At the end of each week, do a ‘Count Your Blessings’ exercise, and consider the people and events that made these blessings possible. Pass along your gratitude and offer kindness, cooperation and compassion to others to multiply the effect of your feelings of gratitude.
DeSteno, David, “The Science of Gratitude: How Being Thankful Makes Us Happier,” On Point, WBUR, Nov. 21, 2018
DeSteno, David, “The Science of Gratitude” on YouTube
Sansone, Randy and Sansone, Lori, “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry, National Institutes of Health, November 2010.
Wong, Joel and Brown, Joshua, “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain,” Greater Good Magazine, June 6, 2017
Wong, Joel and Brown, Joshua, “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial,” Psychotherapy Research, May 3, 2016.