Welcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on gratitude. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education.
Gratitude is one of the best-studied concepts in positive psychology and is associated with a range of benefits. You’ll find these benefits in people who are naturally grateful, but also in people who have learned to be more grateful through some of the practices we discussed in week 2, like gratitude journals and visits.
You might be incredulous about all the benefits, and the researchers were, too, at first. But as we’ve discussed, gratitude isn’t just something done every other day or so. It actually changes the way we think, the way we relate to other people, and the way we perceive the world. If the research isn’t convincing, the two videos below will give you a tangible, moving portrait of how gratitude can affect our lives.
1. More happiness
According to some research, 40% of the differences in happiness among people can be attributed to intentional behaviors and attitudes like gratitude. Grateful people are rated as happier, and they tend to feel a greater sense of purpose in life. People who gratitude-journal feel better about life as a whole, and performing a gratitude visit can raise our happiness levels up to a month later. By making us happier, gratitude can unlock all the benefits of more happiness: better health, longevity, creativity, performance, income, relationships, and more.
2. More positive emotions
Grateful people and people who gratitude-journal are more joyful and enthusiastic. Gratitude journaling also makes us more optimistic, interested, attentive, energetic, excited, determined, and strong.
Grateful people tend to have higher self-worth and self-confidence. By seeing all the ways that other people are benefitting them, they start to feel more deserving. In essence, they think: I can’t be so bad if everyone wants to help me!
3. Better relationships
Grateful people have better relationships and more healthy attachments, and they feel less lonely and more connected. They’re also more altruistic, empathic, generous, and cooperative, which is perhaps why people rate them as more pleasant to be around.
People who gratitude-journal offer more support to others and are rated as helpful by others. They feel more connected and are more forgiving and loving. Gratitude plays a role in reciprocal altruism, where people take turns helping each other out.
In this video, Brian Doyle talks about his project 365 Days of Thank You, where he spent an entire year thanking someone every single day. Particularly interesting is how difficult it was for him to thank his father – more nerve-wracking than coming out as gay – and what it meant for their relationship:
4. Fewer negative emotions
Grateful people experience less envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. Researchers say that we can’t experience a negative and a positive emotion at the same time – if we are feeling grateful, we are by definition not feeling these other unpleasant things.
Gratitude may be particularly helpful for combatting depression. It may help lift people’s spirits by helping them focus on the positive, build relationships, and cope with trauma (which is often a precursor to depression). It can also build up self-worth and make people feel like life is worth living, because people are doing good toward us. The gratitude visit, for example, can make people less depressed up to a month later.
5. Better health
Grateful people recover faster from illness and may even live longer, given that other positive emotions like optimism are related to longevity. They even have lower blood pressure, better immune function, and better cardiac health. Part of this is due to behaviors: grateful people sleep a half hour more each night and exercise 33% more per week.
People who gratitude-journal show fewer symptoms of illness, fewer health complaints, and more time exercising. One of the pathways here is stress: becoming more appreciative can decrease stress hormones and increase relaxation hormones.
In heart transplant patients, religious gratitude was linked to better physical and mental health a year later, more compliance with medications, and fewer difficulties with diet. Broadly, people who see their health as a gift are more likely to take fewer risks and perform healthier behaviors.
6. Better coping
After trauma, being grateful can make you happier and decrease negative emotions and stress. Gratitude has been shown to have many of the above benefits for happiness, health, positive emotions, and negative emotions on people with neuromuscular diseases and chronic pain, and caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s – showing that gratitude is useful not only in good circumstances but also in bad.
Gratitude can make us more resilient, able to bounce back when life knocks us down. Grateful people have more closure around traumatic memories; by encouraging us to focus on the positive, it can turn a tragedy into an inspiring story of redemption.
In this video, Hailey Bartholomew talks about her 365 Grateful project, where she took a photo of something she was grateful for every day of the year. She shares how it helped her overcome depression and helped one of her followers deal with the death of an infant:
7. Better performance
Grateful people have more energy, alertness, enthusiasm, vigor, and success in achieving their goals. This finding might be counterintuitive, because wouldn’t gratitude make us happy with what we have and not so eager to get more? That isn’t the case, as it turns out. It’s possible to be content but still work toward improving your life.
Work is one of the places where we’re least likely to express or hear gratitude, and that’s a problem, says organizational psychologist Lea Waters of the University of Melbourne. Gratitude can increase our job satisfaction, which in turn boosts performance – so when you’re working on a gratitude practice, don’t forget to put it into effect at work. Waters explains how in this video:
Why does gratitude have all these benefits? First, it helps us savor the good things in our lives. When we take the time to be grateful, we cement positive experiences in our mind and we’re more likely to remember then later. Seeing the good things in life as gifts makes them even more special – the difference between getting a paycheck you’re owed and a surprise holiday bonus. It actually makes us less materialistic, and material goods are notoriously easy to adapt to and take for granted. And gratitude may actually counter the strong forces of adaptation, whereby we get used to the good (and the bad) in our lives.
For the gratitude journal in particular, the act of sitting down to write about gratitude helps us become more disciplined and feel a sense of perspective and control. It creates a physical record of our lives, full of insight into our thought patterns and feelings, that we can reflect on later or even give to our children. And most importantly, gratitude journaling encourages us to keep our eyes open for positive things in life. It’s a virtuous circle, as even the least grateful people begin to build up momentum and find more and more things to be grateful for.
In the end, we can even go so far as to feel grateful for our ability to feel grateful – and if you reach that stage, my friends, you’ve done something special.
Have you seen any benefits from your gratitude practice yet? Feel free to share on our Facebook group.
Sources and further reading:
- Robert Emmons, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier
- Week 8 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX