A hug, a thank-you card, an email that ends in “we are very grateful to you,” a gift, a promise to return a favor…
Gratitude comes in many shapes and forms. But have you ever wondered what gratitude really is? Or why you don’t feel grateful in some situations even when you “should”? Have you ever been curious if there is any truth to the notion that gratitude can benefit your mental health?
Today I hope to shed some light on these and other questions concerning gratitude.
The Definition of Gratitude
In his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Robert A. Emmons, PhD, says the experience of gratitude has two stages: First, one acknowledges something positive in his or her life; then, they recognize its source. As an illustration, imagine that you find, on the kitchen table, a box of chocolates — those expensive, fatty delicious kinds that are your favorite and are absolutely to die for. You see a note that tells you the source of this wonderful surprise is your friend Betty. The result? You feel grateful for her.
Situations that call for gratitude, therefore, have three components: beneficiaries, benefices, and benefactors. In the above scenario, you are considered the beneficiary, the chocolates are the benefice, and Betty who is the source of said chocolates is your benefactor.
It is natural to speak of feeling gratitude towards Betty because at minimum, “gratitude is an emotional response” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). But gratitude has been conceptualized in many other ways as well: as an attitude, a virtue, “a habit, a motive, a personality trait, a coping response, and even a way of life” (Emmons, 2007).
And how would gratitude be conceived of as, say, a personality trait? A “dispositionally grateful person” is one who feels gratitude more intensely, more frequently, in many more circumstances, and to many more people for the same outcome (for example, you, being a very grateful person, may feel gratitude not only towards your friend Betty but also towards the chocolatier and even the farm workers who harvested the cocoa) (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).
The Function of Gratitude
Gratitude functions as both “a response to” and a “motivator” of prosocial behavior (McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons, & Larson, 2001). Namely, when you feel gratitude, you gain awareness that someone has done something positive for you, something meant to promote your well-being; you are then motivated to behave in a positive fashion towards your benefactor. And when you express your gratitude towards your benefactor, he or she is encouraged to behave prosocially in the future (McCullough et al., 2001).
In a study published in May 2012, researcher Sara B. Algoe advances a theory that focuses less on the function of gratitude as it relates to the exchange of benefits between strangers (as we discussed above), and more on the relational aspect of gratitude.
In other words, in some exchanges there could be “the opportunity to solidify a connection with someone… who will be there through thick and thin”; thus, regardless of “whether the benefit recipient values a benefit,” gratitude is significantly more likely if “the benefactor was perceived to be responsive to the recipient’s needs and preferences when providing it” (Algoe, 2012).
Feelings of gratitude result from the perception that someone has acted specifically to promote one’s well-being (McCullough et al., 2001). Numerous factors, however, influence whether and to what extent a person feels gratitude. Using the example of Betty and her gift of chocolates, consider, for instance, that your feelings of gratitude may depend on how much the chocolates cost, or how much you desire these chocolates.
It might also depend on your willingness to receive gifts specifically from Betty; your belief that Betty has gone beyond her previous obligations to you in giving you this gift; your belief that Betty has acted benevolently towards you (not if she has been jealous of your recently acquired slim figure, and her gift of chocolates was meant to tempt you away from your diet); your willingness to be in Betty’s debt (not if Betty expects a big favor in return, such as you babysitting her children while she spends a month in the Bahamas)…(Roberts, 2004).
Gratitude is hardly a new concept. For centuries philosophers have spoken of gratitude as a “virtue” (a disposition towards moral excellence). Theologians have additionally emphasized the importance of gratitude to religious practices such as worship — especially in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where gratitude “permeates the texts, prayers, and the teachings” (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
Aside from moral and spiritual benefits, however, “a very large body of evidence” in psychological research now suggests that “gratitude is strongly related to all aspects of wellbeing;” even potentially in a causal manner (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010).
For example, writing about experiences of gratitude proved beneficial in a very recent study, in which participants were randomly assigned to three conditions: control, expressive writing, and gratitude writing (Wong et al., 2016); in all groups the participants received psychotherapy but in the expressive writing and gratitude writing groups, the participants completed additional assignments, either writing about very stressful experiences in their lives or writing letters of gratitude to people they had not been able to thank properly in the past, respectively.
At “4 and 12 weeks after the writing intervention, psychotherapy clients who were randomly assigned to participate in gratitude writing reported better mental health than those who were assigned to expressive writing and to the control group” (Wong et al., 2016).
Gratitude has also been show to predict a higher GPA, higher social integration and life satisfaction, and lower depression and envy (Froh, Emmons, Card, Bono, & Wilson, 2011). High levels of gratitude have also been shown to reduce suicidal ideation (Kleiman, Adams, Kashdan, & Riskind, 2013). In a series of eight studies, it was found that gratitude “decreased (or prevented an increase) in reports of depressive symptoms” by increasing positive emotions and reframing negative emotions as “potentially positive” (Lambert, Fincham, & Stillman, 2012).
Not only feeling gratitude but also the expression of gratitude can be pleasant. In a Gallup poll (1998), the percentage of people surveyed who said that expressing gratitude made them feel either “somewhat happy” or “extremely happy” was over 90%.
Assuming then that feeling gratitude is beneficial to our mental health and that even expressing it can make us happy, we might wonder how to practice gratitude. My understanding is that discipline is key. Some of you may already be performing daily religious practices that focus on gratitude for the blessings in your life. Or you may have a journal in which you describe your daily experiences of gratitude in detail. A number of you may be practicing writing letters of gratitude (thanking people whom you never got to properly thank in the past).
A friend of mine who finds the above practices too time-consuming prefers to list a few things she feels grateful for each day and share them on her blog. This takes her only 3-4 minutes to do. Something like: I feel gratitude towards…
- The bus driver for waited for me.
- My co-worker Alex for complimenting me.
- Mom for sending over my favorite dish.
- The strangers on the street for smiling.
- God for that cool breeze today.
- Golden poppies — just because they are so lovely!
I would like to end this essay by noting that if I myself were to make a list today, there would be an entry for my gratitude towards you, the readers, for your interest and time. Thank you very much.
Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6, 455– 469.
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.
Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 56–69.
Froh, J. J., Emmons, R. A., Card, N. A., Bono, G., & Wilson, J. A. (2011). Gratitude and the reduced costs of materialism in adolescents. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 289–302.
Gallup, G. H., Jr. (1998, May). Thankfulness: America’s saving grace. Paper presented at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast, Thanks-Giving Square, Dallas, TX.
Kleiman, E. M., Adams, L. M., Kashdan, T. B., & Riskind, J. H. (2013). Gratitude and grit indirectly reduce risk of suicidal ideations by enhancing meaning in life: Evidence for a mediated moderation model. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 539–546.
Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Stillman, T. F. (2012). Gratitude and depressive symptoms: The role of positive reframing and positive emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 26, 615–633.
McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112–127.
McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin, 127, 249 – 266.
Roberts, R.C. (2004). The blessings of gratitude: A conceptual analysis. In R. A. Emmons, & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), The psychology of gratitude (pp. 58–78). New York: Oxford University Press.
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 3307, 1-11.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well‐being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890–905.