Since 1863 in the United States, we’ve set aside an annual Day of Thanksgiving to share our collective gratitude for the abundance in our lives. It’s now largely a festival of greed and excess, but this time of year may still be an auspicious time to think about the benefits of cultivating “an attitude of gratitude.”
The importance of gratitude has been understood for millennia by all of the world’s great spiritual traditions, but it only became the focus of empirical research at the beginning of this century. Dr. Robert Emmons, a U.C. professor of psychology, has spent much of his professional life researching gratitude. He describes what he’s discovered in his book, Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. “Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished,” he writes. “Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. People are moved, opened and humbled through expressions of gratitude.”
In a series of studies, he and his colleagues taught people to cultivate gratitude, usually by keeping a “gratitude journal” in which they recorded daily the things for which they were thankful. In these studies subjects usually only kept gratitude journals for three weeks, and yet in even that short amount of time they consistently experienced enormous benefits.
They reported that they exercised more regularly, had fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about their futures than the control subjects who didn’t keep the journals. In addition, participants who kept journals were more likely to make progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to the controls. Subjects who focused on gratitude reported increased levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, vitality and life satisfaction, and lower levels of depression and stress. Perhaps most importantly, those who felt grateful were more likely to help others and to feel loved themselves. Apparently gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people, because one act based on gratitude encouraged another.
Why is gratitude practice so transformative? Emmons believes that four factors help answer this question:
1. Gratitude teaches us to celebrate the present. Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly, but gratitude increases our appreciation for the good things in our lives; and the more we appreciate the value of something, the more benefits we receive from it. We’re less likely to take the positives in our lives for granted. Instead of taking the good for granted, we celebrate it.
2. Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions that destroy happiness, such as envy, resentment, and regret. Recent evidence shows that gratitude can even reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.
3. Grateful people are more stress resistant. A number of studies show that in the face of serious trauma and suffering, people with a grateful disposition recover more quickly. It appears that gratitude gives people a perspective which helps buffer them against post-traumatic stress and chronic anxiety.
4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. That’s because, when we’re grateful, we’re also more aware of a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping us get to where we are right now. And the more we recognize how much we’ve been loved, supported, and protected by others, the more we’re able to internalize the value that they’ve seen in us.
But the practice of gratitude can also challenge some deeply ingrained psychological habits. One of these is “self-serving bias,” which means that when good things happen to us, we tend to assume that it’s solely a result of our own efforts, but when bad things happen, we blame other people or circumstances. Gratitude works against self-serving bias because it involves acknowledging the contributions others have made to our lives.
Finally, when we’re grateful we’re less prone to assume that we ‘deserve’ the good things that we receive in our lives. This contradicts an assumption that is pervasive in our culture: that we’re entitled to all the good fortune that comes our way. When we deserve everything, we don’t feel grateful for anything. Gratitude helps us to overcome the assumption of entitlement, and opens the way to accept the gifts that come our way with grace and humility.