All great spiritual traditions acknowledge the importance of cultivating gratitude. Indeed, many regard gratitude as a virtue. Gratitude is often taught to children as a should, as in: “You should thank Grandma for the birthday gift, even if it wasn’t what you wanted.”
But the fact is that gratitude is both a virtue AND a benefit. Saying “thanks” helps both the giver and the recipient. Research shows that grateful people experience more happiness, less stress, better relationships, and even better physical health.
Here’s why and how to cultivate gratitude in your own life.
Why cultivate gratitude?
Science demonstrates that cultivating gratitude has a positive impact on the one who’s doing the thanking. Benefits of gratitude include:
- More positive emotions like happiness, hope, satisfaction with one’s life
- Fewer negative emotions like depression, anxiety, envy
- Improved relationships with others
- Improved markers of physical health like lower blood pressure, increased immune function, more exercise and better sleep
Scientific studies on gratitude
Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are two of the most well-known researchers on this topic. They did a famous project referred to as the Blessings Study in 2003.
The experiment divided college students into three groups. Each participant received a diary and instructions on what to write about. One group listed 5 blessings every day. Another listed 5 hassles. Another one described 5 neutral events.
As it turned out, the “blessings” group reported several benefits as compared to the “hassle” and “neutral” groups:
- more exercise
- fewer physical symptoms
- better feeling about life
- more connection with others
- more optimism about the coming week
Based on these results, researchers concluded that people stood to gain from cultivating gratitude. They expressed their findings in true social science language: “[A] conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”
Three Good Things
Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a 2005 study where participants spent 5 to 10 minutes at the end of every day on a simple practice. They listed 3 things, large or small, that had gone well that day, as well as why they thought the events happened.
Study results showed that completing this exercise every day for 1 week led to increases in happiness that lasted for 6 months. Cultivating gratitude, then, yielded measurable and long-lasting benefits.
Gratitude in the workplace
Adam Grant and Francesca Gino showed that managers who express gratitude to workers can motivate them to work harder. They studied a university’s telephone fundraising operation over a two-week period. Between the first and second weeks, half of the fundraisers (“the gratitude group”) received a visit from the university’s director of annual giving. During her visit, she expressed appreciation for the fundraisers’ work.
The average performance of both the gratitude group and the control group was near-identical during the study’s first week. But during the second week, fundraisers in the gratitude group increased their efforts by 50%.
The gratitude effect was so strong that Harvard Business Review published a discussion of it. The publication interpreted study results to offer insights to managers in for-profit and non-profit sectors.
Evidence-based ways to develop gratitude
These studies and others demonstrate powerful links between simple practices and gratitude’s benefits. The workplace example shows how gratitude can motivate employees to benefit your organization.
Other research focuses on gratitude’s individual expression and its boomerang effect of benefiting the one who’s showing gratitude. Studies show you can cultivate gratitude in straightforward ways:
1. Count your blessings, not your hassles
Merely writing down a handful of things you appreciate about your on a regular basis will raise your gratitude quotient.
You don’t have to make an exhaustive list. In fact, it’s better to focus on fewer things more regularly than sit down with a big piece of paper to list blessings occasionally. Emmons’ and McCullogh’s study had participants write about five things each day.
When I hear “count your blessings,” I immediately think of the old Baptist hymn I learned while growing up. The songwriter may have spoken from personal experience, but research backs him up.
2. Three Good Things, or What Went Well
Martin Seligman showed that taking time every day to list three things that went well for you yields measurable, long-lasting increases in your happiness.
Seligman also calls this practice What Went Well or WWW. It’s one that I enjoy doing. I find WWW a way to wrap up my day on a positive note. It may even help me sleep better.
Both WWW and the counting blessings practice are versions of doing a gratitude journal. This is another habit studies show will help you cultivate gratitude.
It’s a matter of personal preference. To me, keeping a journal seems hard. For some reason, I think I have to buy a special leather-bound book and force myself to use good penmanship. Yet jotting down three things in my phone seems easy.
Choose what works for you.
3. Gratitude letter
The practice that resulted in the most dramatic mindset shift was that of composing a letter of appreciation to someone in your life. Maybe there’s a relative, teacher, or someone else you’d never told how much they meant to you. You can cultivate gratitude by writing to them.
Gratitude letter writers experienced immediate, sizable increases in their happiness scores. And the effects lasted a month or longer – just from writing one letter.
Seligman and others who’ve tested this practice encourage you to present your letter in person. Oddly enough, however, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that gratitude letter writers experience benefits regardless of whether they deliver their letter or set it aside.
UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center offers these instructions for writing a gratitude letter.
Obstacles to cultivating gratitude
Although most people have no problem thinking of things they’re grateful for, gratitude doesn’t come easily to everyone. Gratitude scholar Robert A. Emmons says two essential pieces of information anchor an individual’s feelings of gratitude:
(a) an affirming of goodness or “good things” in one’s life and (b) the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the selfRobert A Emmons, University of California at Davis
Some obstacles to gratitude are deeply ingrained in an individual’s personality. Narcissism, for example, leads to feelings of entitlement. If you think you deserve the good things in your life, or that people’s gifts to you are attempts to curry your favor, you’re less likely to feel grateful for them.
Similarly, envy, resentment, perception of victimhood, inability to admit your shortcomings, or a highly materialistic orientation can prevent you from experiencing authentic gratitude.
It’s easy to review the list and say, “Well, I don’t have any of those problems.” But most of us experience negative traits like these from time to time. I’ve written before about the destructive power of envy in my own life. Cultivating gratitude is one of the ways I get myself to “snap out of it.”
Survey says: give thanks
Gratitude is a universal human attribute. It crosses time, geography and culture. Gratitude expressions may differ. For example, individualistic cultures may focus on individual blessings, while collective cultures count positive things experienced by their family and community.
But people across the world have felt called to give thanks for centuries. Now researchers have quantified what folks intuited all along. That cultivating gratitude is not only the “right” thing to do. It’s also something that benefits you.
Studies show that practices like gratitude journaling or letter-writing yield measurable improvements in your happiness, relationships, and physical health.
But cultivating gratitude isn’t merely another self-improvement activity. Gratitude transcends the everyday. It unites people in our mutual humanity.
So count your blessings, today and every day. The practice will help you live your best midlife.