Gratitude may seem like a simple emotion, but Robert Emmons argues that it inspires kindness, connection, and transformative life changes. And he researched to prove it.
Elizabeth Bartlett is a professor of political science at a Midwestern university. By age 42, her irregular heartbeat had become life-threatening. A heart transplant was her last hope, and she was lucky enough to receive one. In a book describing her journey, she writes that she was grateful for her new life, but being grateful was not enough.
I have a desire to give something back. Thank you. to say thanks. Give things. Give thoughts. I was giving love. So gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving, an endless waterfall. Fill up and overflow. Maybe not even to the giver, but to someone else, your path crosses. It is simply passing on the gift.
However, the benefits of gratitude are rarely discussed today; in fact, in contemporary American society, the meaning of gratitude is often overlooked, rejected, or even dismissed. What Bartlett describes is true gratitude. As this short passage illustrates, gratitude is more than a pleasant feeling; it’s also motivating. Gratitude serves as an important link between receiving and giving; it prompts recipients to share and increase the good they have received. Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving, and repaying, gratitude is crucial in our social interactions. Famous sociologist Georg Simmel stated that gratitude is “the moral reminder of mankind.” If every act of gratitude, he continued, were suddenly eliminated, society would crumble.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we don’t have a sophisticated discourse on gratitude because we’re out of practice. The late philosopher Robert Solomon noted how relatively rarely do Americans talk about gratitude. Even though it forms the basis of social life in many other cultures, we usually don’t pay much attention to it in America- except on Thanksgiving one day. On the other hand, we scrutinize anger, resentment, happiness, and romantic love.
It has been argued that men, in particular, may resist experiencing and expressing gratitude, as this involves dependence and debt. A fascinating study in the 1980s found that American men were less likely to view gratitude positively than German men and as less constructive and helpful than their German counterparts. Gratitude assumes so many judgments about debt and dependency that it’s easy to see why supposedly self-reliant Americans wouldn’t feel good even talking about it.
We like to think that we are our creators and can do whatever we want with our lives. We take things for granted, and we assume that we are fully responsible for all the good that comes our way. After all, we earned it, and we deserve it. A scene from The Simpsons reflects this mentality. When asked to say mercy at the family table, Bart Simpson says, “Dear God, we paid for all these things ourselves, so thank you for nothing.”
In a sense, Bart is, of course, right. The Simpson family made their own money. But on another level, he misses the bigger picture. The grateful person feels that much good is happening regardless of his actions or even despite himself. Gratitude implies humility-an acknowledgment that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others. How many relatives, friends, strangers, and those who have gone before have made our daily lives easier and made our existence freer, more comfortable, and even possible? It’s mind-boggling to consider.
Indeed, contemporary social science research reminds us that we will be at our own emotional and psychological risk if we overlook gratitude. Researchers discovered that gratitude is a powerful contributor to human health, happiness, and social connection after years of neglecting it—possibly because it appears to be a very obvious emotion with no interesting complications.
I started studying gratitude ten years ago. Although the emotion seemed simplistic at first, I soon discovered that gratitude is a deep, complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. My research collaboration with Michael McCullough at the University of Miami has led to several important findings of gratitude. We have discovered scientific evidence that when people regularly work on cultivating gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and social. People have reported that gratitude has led to transformative life changes in some cases. More importantly, the family, friends, partners, and others who surround them consistently report that people who practise gratitude seem measurably happier and more pleasant to be around.
The Science of Gratitude
At the start of our research, Mike McCullough and I thought people who regularly practiced gratitude would have better mental and social functioning. We then did a series of experiments based on that thought.
In our first study, Mike and I randomly assigned the participants one of three tasks. We decided to encourage some participants to feel gratitude and others to be negative and irritable. We also created a third, neutral group to measure the others. Once a week for ten weeks, the study participants kept a short diary of five things that had happened in the past week. They either briefly described, in a single sentence, five things they were grateful for (“the gratitude state”), or they did the opposite and described five problems that they did not like (“the troubled state”). The neutral control group was asked to list five events or conditions that had affected them each week, and they were not told to emphasize the positive or negative aspects of those circumstances.
To give a taste of what the participants wrote about, examples of gratitude-inducing experiences included “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “God who gave me determination,” and “the Rolling Stones.” Examples of problems were: “difficulty finding a parking space,” “messy kitchen that no one cleans,” “finances running out quickly,” and “doing a favor to a friend who didn’t appreciate it.”
While I thought we would see the benefits of gratitude, I wasn’t sure whether this result would be inevitable or unequivocal. Being grateful means allowing yourself to be put in the recipient’s position—feeling guilty, aware of your dependence on others, and being obligated to give something back. An exercise like ours can remind people to repay the kindness of others, and they can resent these obligations and even report strong negative feelings toward their benefactors.
So I was amazed at how dramatically positive our results were. At the end of the ten weeks, participants who kept a gratitude journal felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other two conditions. In other words, according to the scale we used to calculate well-being, they were 25% happier than the other participants. Those in the gratitude condition reported fewer health complaints and even spent more time exercising than the control participants did and significantly more time exercising than those in the fussing condition (almost 1.5 hours more per week). This is a huge difference. The people in the gratitude group also didn’t have as many symptoms of physical illness as the people in the other two groups.
We asked participants to keep a daily diary for two weeks in a second study. People assigned to re-express their gratitude demonstrated an impressive array of benefits: In surveys, we gave to all study participants, people who kept gratitude journals reported feeling happier, more enthusiastic, more interested, more attentive, more energetic, excited, and determined and stronger than those in trouble. They also reported giving others more emotional support or help with a personal problem and supported the idea that gratitude motivates people to do good. And this was not limited to what they said about themselves. We sent surveys to people who knew them well. We got similar results in
a study of adults with neuromuscular disease, many of whom suffered from fatigue, slowly progressive muscle weakness, muscle and joint pain, and muscle atrophy. Little is known about factors that influence the quality of life of people with neuromuscular disorders. This study gave us a unique opportunity to determine whether gratitude intervention can help improve the well-being of people with chronic physical illness.
Participants in the gratitude condition showed significantly more positive emotions and life satisfaction than the control group while also showing fewer negative emotions. They were also more optimistic about the week ahead and felt closer and more connected to others, although many lived alone and did not extend their actual contact time with others. These positive emotional and psychological changes didn’t just appear to the participants themselves: The spouses of people who took part in the study told us that people in the gratitude state looked happier than those in the control group.
Participants in the gratitude condition also reported getting more hours of sleep each night, spending less time awake before falling asleep, and feeling more refreshed upon waking. This finding is huge, as sleep disturbances and poor sleep quality have been identified as central indicators of poor general well-being and an increased risk of physical illness and premature death. It may sound simplistic, but the evidence can’t be ignored: If you want better sleep, count blessings, not sheep.
One of the important features of all these studies is that we randomly assigned participants to conditions. Many people prone to pessimism may have been placed in the gratitude group, just as optimists may have been in other circumstances. In addition, very few studies have been able to develop ways to make people happier or happier. We were able to do this with a simple exercise that took very little time.
Other studies have confirmed our findings and further testified to the benefits of gratitude, especially for social connections. Mike and I did some more research, and we found that people who report feeling grateful regularly are more likely to be friendly or helpful than people who report feeling grateful less often.
We also identified people with a strong propensity for gratitude and asked their friends to tell us about them. We then compared their friends’ responses with the feedback we received from the friends of less appreciative people. According to their friends, grateful people showed themselves to be more supportive, friendly, and helpful (e.g., lending money, showing compassion, compassion, and emotional support) than less grateful people.
Very informative research has been done by David DeSteno and Monica Bartlett of Northeastern University. The participants worked on a computer-generated task; when they were about to receive their score, the screen suddenly went blank. Another person in the room-a “confederation,” who secretly worked with the researchers-“discovered” the monitor’s plug had been partially unplugged, then helped display the participant’s scores. Upon leaving the lab, the participant was asked if they would volunteer to help with another, apparently unrelated experiment, which involved completing a tedious and taxing survey.
Compared to people who didn’t receive the favor, including some who were put in a good mood by watching a funny video clip, the people who received the favor and felt grateful to the ally were more likely to bother filling out the research. This shows that gratitude has a special effect on people who want to help, even more than the general effect of being in a good mood.
Why is gratitude good?
So why is gratitude good? For two main reasons, I think. First, gratitude strengthens social bonds, cultivating an individual’s sense of interconnectedness. Roger, one of the people we talked to in our study of people with chronic neuromuscular disease, told us a story that showed this.
Faced with mounting medical bills and a long spell of unemployment, Roger was on the brink of losing his home—until friends threw a benefit party to raise money for him. He wrote in his gratitude journal: “
Well, the big day came after much anticipation. About two hundred people showed up, bought lottery tickets, drank, danced, partied, and ate until 1 am! We went on stage to thank everyone with joy, tears, and hugs. My manager wrote me a check for over $35,000 the following week! Without that check, my house and car would have been on the market. It was great to see so many friends and colleagues. The first prize of $1,000 was returned to us by the winner (a stranger!). As I write, I keep thinking about more highlights. My doctor and nurse were also there, and our priest came over for a few beers. I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life! I can almost feel myself bursting into tears as I write. My heart warms when I see the people who were there. I also need to help or reach out to others when I can help by speaking or simply listening.
In Roger’s response to that evening and his desire to help others. As a result, we can see how gratitude truly serves as “the moral reminder of humanity.”
A second reason supporting the power of gratitude is that gratitude increases one’s sense of personal worth. When we experience gratitude, we understand that another person wishes us the best, and in turn, we feel loved and cared for. If someone helps me, how can I not think that I have value in that person’s eyes?
It could be this link that explains why gratitude can be a powerful antidote to a depressed outlook on life. One of the reasons gratitude makes us happier is that it forces us to give up a belief that can accompany severe depression—that the world is devoid of goodness, love, and kindness and is nothing but arbitrariness and cruelty. By recognising patterns of benevolence, the depressed person can change his or her self-perception (“I guess I’m not much of a loser after all”). By feeling grateful, we recognise that somewhere is nice to us. And therefore, we can see not only that we are worthy of kindness but that kindness does indeed exist in the world, and therefore, life can be worth living.
We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness. That is why we are called to gratitude. Life becomes complete when we can give to others what we have received ourselves in the past. In one of our studies, a 33-year-old woman with spinal muscular atrophy captured these dynamics:
All my life, people have been involved in helping me get dressed, shower, go to work or school, etc. I hoped that I could do something very important for someone else one day, as others have always done for me. I met a man who was married and very unhappy. He and his wife had a son, who died when they were seven months old. For ten years, they stayed married and tried to have another baby. They were never able to have a child again. They divorced, and he became my friend and lover. He told me about his lifelong dream of having another child. I became pregnant with him and miscarried. I got pregnant again and had an ectopic pregnancy. (No loss of my tube, thank goodness!) One-shot solved the problem. On December 20, 1998, I got pregnant for the third time, and our beautiful son was born. I’ve never felt so grateful for anything in my life. I was really able to give something back to someone. My mother, who had to die before I was two years old,
It is gratitude that enables us to receive, and it is gratitude that motivates us to return the goodness that has been given to us. In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human. There are many companies that help Disabled Veterans.