Gratitude is a fascinating emotion. Even though most parents teach their kids from an early age to be thankful, the feeling is elusive to children and adults alike, because life is full of distractions and desires that make it difficult to stop and appreciate all that is good. Paradoxically, the more people have to be thankful for, the harder it can be to truly feel grateful.
Interestingly, tragedy often provokes gratitude. Pay attention to the news next time there is a natural disaster. Reporters will interview victims who have just lost their homes and all of their worldly possessions. In this moment of vulnerability, with sadness and uncertainty on full display, you will witness people finding comfort in gratitude by shifting their attention from what has been lost to what remains, namely the family members and close friends who make life meaningful.
Dealing with death can also generate gratitude. When people lose loved ones, in their grief they express thankfulness for having had them in their lives and often wish they would have appreciated them more while they were still alive. Indeed, research has found that simply thinking about death induces a feeling of gratitude. And being thankful for life reduces the fear of death. In one study, researchers found that having older adults write about life events they were grateful for reduced death anxiety.
Gratitude comes naturally to some but is more difficult for others. And age also appears to matter. A recent large study found that older adults are more inclined to feel grateful than middle-aged and younger adults. But studies also indicate that everyone can become more grateful and that there are many reasons to make this a goal.
For one, being grateful is positively associated with overall well-being and good behavior, and this is true across all age groups. In one study that followed students for four years, from middle school to high school, researchers found that the more adolescents developed a sense of gratitude, the more satisfied they were with life, the less they engaged in antisocial behavior, and the more they engaged in prosocial behavior.
Among adults, brief daily or weekly gratitude reflection exercises have been found to increase a range of positive mental states and physical behaviors. For example, after ten weeks of weekly or 13 days of daily gratitude exercises (thinking about and making a list of what one is grateful for), individuals reported greater optimism, positive mood, feelings of belongingness, and physical health. They also reported having engaged in more physical exercise. Gratitude doesn’t just make people feel good. It has motivational power.
Psychologists have also started testing gratitude-based interventions for psychological distress. In a small but encouraging study, participants with an anxiety or depression diagnosis reported lower levels of depression and stress and greater well-being after engaging in gratitude-focused diary writing for three weeks. The researchers followed up with participants a few weeks later and found that the lowered stress and wellbeing improvements had persisted. However, depression had returned to the levels observed prior to the gratitude intervention. This is just one study, but it suggests that though gratitude may not be able to cure depression, it can help people manage it by decreasing stress and promoting positive feelings. Other research has linked gratitude to lower suicide risk.
Gratitude also contributes to successful relationships. Studies show that when people feel grateful, they are more likely to pay attention to the ways their romantic partner supports them. And when people feel grateful, they are more empathetic towards and focused on helping others. Gratitude is also associated with lower levels of aggression, likely because it promotes empathy.
Gratitude plays a vital role in maintaining perceptions of meaning and purpose in life.
One reason gratitude may prove so beneficial is that it plays a vital role in maintaining perceptions of meaning and purpose in life. For nearly 15 years I have been collaborating with an international team of behavioral scientists to research the psychology of nostalgia, and in this work we have observed that gratitude is a common feature of the memories that make life feel meaningful. In one study our team conducted about ten years ago, we asked older British adults to mentally revisit, and detail in writing, an experience from the past that made them feel nostalgic. A number of them wrote about life during World War II. Their stories were inspiring. On the one hand, they described unpleasant states of fear, uncertainty, and separation from loved ones. The war caused great pain, and they did not forget this fact. But their accounts almost always also included expressions of gratitude. Their families and communities suffered loss, but they were also brought closer together, and they were very thankful for that aspect of an otherwise tragic time.
In our modern world of ever-present social media and easy access to consumer products, there is often little space given to reflecting on the people and experiences that fill our lives with meaning and purpose. And there are reasons to worry about a collective decline in gratitude. For one, fewer and fewer Americans attend church. Though gratitude isn’t a uniquely religious experience, churches have traditionally served the function of giving people a time and place to step away from daily stressors, responsibilities, and distractions to cultivate a grateful heart. Likewise, close relationships and the bond of marriage help instill gratitude by generating feelings of meaning and purpose. However, loneliness is on the rise, and Americans are waiting longer to marry, if they marry at all. This isn’t to say that these are the only paths to thankfulness. They are certainly not. But it would be unwise to ignore the role faith, family, and friendship have historically played in inspiring gratitude and meaning.
Whether you are looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2018 or not, considering the many personal and social benefits gratitude helps produce, working to appreciate all that is good in life, and sharing that feeling with others is a worthy endeavor.