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What is Gratitude and Why Is It So Important?

Gratitude is a human emotion that can be most simply defined as appreciation or acknowledgment of an altruistic act.

What is Gratitude? 

Many of us express gratitude by saying “thank you” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift. From a scientific perspective, however, gratitude is not just an action: it is also a positive emotion that serves a biological purpose.

Positive psychology defines gratitude in a way where scientists can measure its effects, and thus argue that gratitude is more than feeling thankful: it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces longer lasting positivity.

Why Gratitude Works

Gratitude is a selfless act. Its acts are done unconditionally, to show to people that they are appreciated. “A gift that is freely given” is one way to understand what these acts are like.

For example, if someone is sad and you write them a note of appreciation, you are likely not asking for something in return for this person; instead, you are reminding them of their value, and expressing gratitude for their existence. At the moment, you are not waiting for a “return note” from this person.

Even when we do not expect a return, sometimes they happen. Gratitude can be contagious, in a good way. In the previous example, maybe when you are down, this person will write you a note too.

Here are two processes gratitude can influence.

Two Stages of Gratitude

According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude involves two stages (2003):

  1. First comes the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make worth living, and rich in texture. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, both by its presence and by the effort the giver put into choosing it.

  2. Second, gratitude is recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. One can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world, but not to oneself. At this stage, we recognize the goodness in our lives and who to thank for it, ie., who made sacrifices so that we could be happy?

The two stages of gratitude comprise the recognition of the goodness in our lives, and then how this goodness came to us externally lies. By this process, we recognize the luck of everything that makes our lives—and ourselves—better.

Modern Psychological Perspectives on Gratitude

More recently, positive psychology has expanded research on the importance of gratitude, largely led by researcher Robert Emmons.

Emmons has authored several papers on the psychology of gratitude, showing that being more grateful can lead to increased levels of well-being (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). Some of Emmons’s work has also dealt specifically with gratitude in a religious setting, highlighting how feeling grateful towards a higher power may lead to increased physical health (Krause et al., 2015).

Here is an overview of nine recent psychological findings related to the study of gratitude:

1. Enhanced Well-being

Expressing your thanks can improve your overall sense of well-being. Grateful people are more agreeable, more open, and less neurotic (McCullough et al., 2002; McCullough, Tsang, & Emmons, 2004; Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008; Wood, Maltby, Stewart, Linley et al., 2008).

Furthermore, gratitude is related inversely to depression, and positively to life satisfaction (Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2008). This is not to say that “depressed people” should simply be more grateful, as depression is a very complicated disease and struggle for millions of people. Instead, perhaps gratitude practices need to be a part of the therapy and treatment for people who struggle with depression.

2. Deeper Relationships

Giving thanks to those who have helped you strengthens your relationships and promotes relationship formation and maintenance, as well as relationship connection and satisfaction (Algoe et al., 2008; Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010).

3. Improved Optimism

Dr. Emmons and Dr. McCullough did a study in 2003 exploring the impact of practicing gratitude. After 10 weeks, their research conveys that people who focused on gratitude showed more optimism in many areas of their lives, including health and exercise.

When people are optimistic about their well-being and health, they may be more likely to act in ways that support a healthy lifestyle.

4. Increased Happiness

In the pursuit of happiness and life satisfaction, gratitude offers a long-lasting effect in a positive-feedback loop of sorts. Thus, the more gratitude we experience and express, the more situations and people we may find to express gratitude towards.

5. Stronger Self-Control

Self-Control helps with discipline and focus. Long-term well-being can benefit from self-control, for example, resisting nicotine in cigarettes for someone who is trying to quit smoking. Self-control helps us stick to the “better choice” for our long-term health, financial future, and well-being.

A study by DeSteno et al. in 2014 found that self-control significantly increased when subjects chose gratitude over happiness or feeling neutral. One of the study’s authors, Professor Ye Li, said:

“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”

Being thankful can provide us the resolve we need to make choices in our lives that serve us, emotionally and physically, in the long-run. As this study highlights, there are so many applications to using gratitude as a path towards healthier humans and communities.

6. Better Physical and Mental Health

Research performed in 2015 showed that patients with heart failure who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep, and better moods; this reduced their symptoms of heart failure after only 8 weeks.

The link between the mind-body connection aligns with how gratitude can have a double benefit. For example, the feeling of appreciation helps us to have healthier minds, and with that healthier bodies.

7. An Overall a Better Life

Over the last two decades, the evidence supporting the benefits of gratitude has increased a lot.

Consider this quote from the Wall Street Journal’s article “Thank you, No, Thank you.”

“…adults who feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics.” – Melinda Beck

Aside from increasing well-being, psychology research shows how practicing gratitude, in this case, gratitude towards a higher power, can reduce levels of stress (Krause, 2006). Practicing gratitude can decrease levels of depression and anxiety (Kashdan & Breen, 2007).

8. Stronger Athleticism

Studies from researcher Lung Hung Chen found that an athlete’s level of gratitude for their success can influence their levels of well-being (Chen, 2013; Chen & Wu, 2014). More specifically, adolescent athletes who are more grateful in life are also more satisfied and tend to have higher levels of self-esteem.

Gratitude also affects sports fans (Kim & Jeong, 2015; Kim et al., 2010). Fans’ levels of gratitude influence their happiness, connection, and identity with a team. In turn, stronger fan support and pride can influence the performance and pride of the team itself for representing a greater team.

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