Here is my pledge to you:
When you head to sleep tonight, you’ll do so with this article etched in your mind, grateful to have come by it.
You’ll wake in the morning, renewed, jubilant, and with a newfound spring in your step. As you pull back the curtains, you’ll give thanks for another day.
Full of appreciation for the work that awaits, you’ll rush to the office before you’ve given breakfast a second thought. Your surprised team will arrive to find you gleaming from ear to ear. “You’re awesome!” you’ll bellow, as you high five each and every one of them.
Ok, I’m kidding, of course. I’m not about to endorse the sociopathic behaviour I’ve just described.
Alas, the reality of the world doesn’t permit perpetual gratitude. Mornings, weather, colleagues, jobs, relationships. All of these things have the potential to sometimes suck. And so we cannot expect to live our lives in a constant state of gratitude. Heck, it would be downright worrying if we did.
But here’s the thing. There is an extraordinarily powerful scientific case for the right kind of gratitude. Indeed, being thankful for the meaningful things we have, and the meaningful things people do, can have hugely positive effects on our and their well-being and happiness.
Let’s explore some of these benefits.
#1: Greater Optimism and Well-Being
Positive psychology research offers a wealth of evidence identifying an association between gratitude and improved well-being.
Take one study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003. Researchers compared the well-being of 200 participants who for 10 weeks either kept a weekly list of things they were grateful for, things that irked them, or neutral things. They then conducted weekly follow-up surveys to assess participant well-being.
The results showed that the gratitude group rated their life more favourably than the other two groups. But on top of a more optimistic picture, the gratitude group also experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness and spent nearly 1.5 hours more exercising each week.
What’s remarkable about these results isn’t just the physical and behavioural impact; it’s the minimal effort with which they achieved it. Participants didn’t have to behave like our high-fiving sociopath described earlier. Instead, they simply turned their outlook to one of positivity and gratitude, making brief lists of things they were grateful for during the week. Things like “wonderful parents”, “waking up in the morning healthy” and “supportive partners”.
#2: Improved Mental Health
Studies are also increasingly looking at the role such gratitude exercises can play for those suffering with mental health problems.
Two researchers at Indiana University looked at the impact of writing weekly gratitude letters to someone else each week for participants receiving psychotherapy. Split into three similar groups, the results again showed that those regularly expressing gratitude had significantly improved mental health.
While there are always caveats, accumulating research is broadly consistent. Inwardly and outwardly expressing gratitude seems to make us happier and healthier.
#3: Delayed Gratification
We’ve seen already that gratitude may play some role in encouraging us to exercise more. That’s suggestive of a role for willpower in the gratitude equation.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. Do you remember the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment? (To recap: kids were told they could either eat one marshmallow now or get two marshmallows in 15 minutes if they waited while the tester left the room. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who resisted the temptation of an immediate marshmallow had better life outcomes, as measured by higher SAT scores, superior educational attainment, a lower body mass index, you name it.)
A group of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School decided to run an adult version of the marshmallow test, albeit using the less sweet incentive of money.
Instead of assessing life outcomes, they wanted to see how gratitude affected financial patience. Levels of impatience were assessed by putting a range of different decision scenarios to participants. For example, participants chose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days.
But here’s the good bit. Before making these decisions, participants were randomly assigned to a condition where they wrote about a past event that either made them feel grateful, happy, or neutral, depending on the condition.
Those who had reflected on neutral or happy past events wanted almost immediate payouts, settling for $55 to forego the $80. Those who had written about an event which made them feel grateful, on the other hand, had more financial patience, settling for a higher $63.
Though still not a particularly wise financial decision, the grateful group had significantly more patience than the neutral or happy groups.
In practice, this presents some interesting considerations. Could simple gratitude exercises help us foster better self-control? Is it possible that writing a weekly gratitude list could help mitigate against some of the cognitive biases we face in investing? Could an appreciation note help us push for that little extra in salary negotiations?
These are questions that may have seemed farfetched not long ago, but they may just warrant serious investigation. And they might even be worth trying while we wait for the results.
#4: Increased Dopamine
Positive psychology research points to our brain’s response to gratitude as a possible explanation for these findings.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a brain-imaging study while subjects imagined their own actions towards another person. One group considered actions that they associated with anger or indignation and another group imagined actions associated with gratitude.
The research found that both the indignant and grateful groups exhibited increased activity in various brain regions, but they differed markedly in the mesolimbic pathway.
This is significant because the mesolimbic pathway is the brain’s pathway for dopamine, one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals. Feelings of gratitude appeared to activate sub-regions of this pathway. This reinforces the idea that gratitude provides a positive dopamine hit.
Importantly, dopamine is also great at reinforcing repeated action. That’s one of the reasons that so many of us are addicted to our smartphones. While dopamine is the menace in that equation, it may serve a positive function in reinforcing repeated gratitude.
The Paradox: We Underestimate Gratitude
Despite all the benefits, however, sometimes we’re blocked by our own awkwardness and miscalculation. The truth is, we’re terrible at judging the effects of our gratitude on others.
Recent research published in Psychological Science looked at this peculiar miscalculation in more detail. Participants in three experiments wrote gratitude letters and then predicted how surprised, happy, and awkward recipients would feel. Recipients then reported how the letters actually made them feel.
The results: Writers of the letters significantly underestimated how surprised and positive recipients would feel, while overestimating how awkward they would feel.
In other words, while gratitude is evidentially beneficial, we display less of it because we misjudge its effects on others.
How to Apply the Science of Gratitude
Here are three simple suggestions to cultivate more gratitude in our lives:
- Write a weekly gratitude list. Backed by ample research, writing a short weekly list of the things you’re most grateful for can yield huge benefits for mental and physical well-being. This is an opportunity to focus on what really matters, privately or publicly.
- Start mindfulness meditation. Setting aside time to be in the present moment captures the essence of gratitude. Research has also shown there may be extensive neurological benefits to mindfulness meditation.
- Write a few more gratitude emails. Send more thank you notes. Nice and simple.
These suggestions aren’t rocket science, but those successful in adopting them exhibit a common characteristic: consistency. Doing these things for two weeks is unlikely to make any difference. Go beyond six weeks, however, and the research starts to back the benefits.
- The science suggests that gratitude is associated with higher levels of well-being and improved mental health.
- We tend to underestimate these benefits for ourselves and others.
- We can cultivate more gratitude in our lives through simple practices like a weekly gratitude list.