A Research Paper By Laura Davison, Empowerment Coach, UNITED KINGDOM
Is Gratitude the Key to the Good Life?
An exploration of the applications and limitations of a regular gratitude practice
‘Given that gratitude is a fundamental attribute of human beings and a potential key to human flourishing, we should endeavour to learn as much as we can about its origins, its forms of expressions, and its consequences for individual and collective functioning’. – Robert A. Emmons[i]
According to the Roman philosopher Cicero, ‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.[ii]Indeed, there are numerous studies and articles which suggest and support the notion that developing an ‘attitude of gratitude is the key to enduring health and happiness, promising a multitude of benefits such as; better sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, increased resilience to trauma, improved motivation and productivity, greater optimism and self-esteem, pro-social behaviors such as empathy and kindness, enriched relationships and a much higher probability of achieving personal and professional goals.
In order to understand how we might capitalize on these benefits, it is necessary to consider the current research on gratitude, its basis in neuroscience and positive psychology, as well as its various applications and limitations in the day-to-day world. Some research indicates that ‘gratitude is not simply a cultural construct. It has deep roots that are embedded in our evolutionary history, our brains, and our DNA’.[iii] It will therefore be essential to clearly define gratitude and identify some of the key frameworks developed by researchers, for the purpose of their scientific studies in this area.
Psychologist Sara Algoe wrote that ‘Gratitude starts inside one individual and its effects spread to a dyadic relationship and perhaps throughout a social network’.[iv]In the aftermath of a global pandemic – with many countries facing economic and health crises -schools, workplaces, and social norms remain disrupted, and multiple news reports regularly feature stories of doom and gloom. It is therefore more relevant than ever to recognize and evaluate the significant impact of regular gratitude interventions in healthcare, education, the workplace, and our personal lives and relationships. We will examine several examples of gratitude interventions, their perceived benefits, and the factors which may influence their effectiveness.
‘In a world where negativity, fear, and skepticism are at an all-time high, there remains a human need, perhaps a demand, to count our blessings, show gratitude to others, and find meaning in our daily lives.[v]
Derived from the Latin ‘gratia’ (favor) and ‘gratus’ (pleasing) the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines gratitude as “the quality or condition of being thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness”.[vi] Emmons and McCullough further outlined a two-step process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome”.[vii]Others have proposed three categories of gratitude to include; a grateful disposition described as an affective trait, a mood that is prone to fluctuation, and an emotion, which is more likely to be the impermanent result of a favor or gift. The “practice” of gratitude and the interventions that scientists use in their studies are activities designed to boost gratitude as a mood or emotion.[viii]
Neuroscience studies have detected specific areas of the brain associated with the way we experience gratitude, supporting the concept that it is a fundamental component of the evolved human mind, as our mood is improved by the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine triggers optimistic emotions and prosocial behaviors. It is also linked to ‘intrinsic motivation in goal accomplishment’[ix], as we seek to sustain our ‘feel good habits. Serotonin acts as a natural anti-depressant, enhancing ‘our mood, our willpower, and motivation’.[x] By invoking the regular habit of practicing gratitude, the brain forms and strengthens new positive neural connections, which ultimately reinforce more optimistic gratitude circuits, enhancing our happiness from the inside out.
Hypothalamic regulation triggered by gratitude helps us get deeper and healthier sleep naturally every day [xii], subsequently boosting our immune systems and improving our energy levels. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fear are also considerably lowered, due to the reduction of stress hormones and effective management of the autonomic nervous system functions. At the neurochemical level, feelings of gratitude are associated with an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex[xiii] – the area of the brain accountable for regulating negative emotions such as shame, guilt, envy, resentment, and frustration – so we consequently experience ‘more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.[xiv]This encourages prosocial behavior such as offering help and support to others, and with more positive perceptions of our family, friends, and colleagues, we tend to develop more trust and healthier communication styles, ultimately resulting in stronger relationships. Those who ‘cultivate an attitude of gratitude are more likely to perceive an environment of benevolence, which in turn causes their brains to assume they are in an environment full of social support[xv], prompting fewer social comparisons, less focus on materialism and a decrease in feelings of insecurity.
As our minds are unable to focus on positive and negative experiences simultaneously, we can rewire our neural pathways over time, using regular gratitude interventions and coaching to effectively condition the brain to filter negative thoughts and select more positive thoughts, by cultivating appreciation and acceptance of our present situation. The result is a greater emotional resilience to trauma and stressful events, with less likelihood of suffering from burnout.
Gratitude is healing. It expands your awareness and shifts your focus from something that’s actually hurting you to something that is healing. – Deepak Chopra [xvi]
The positive impact and healing benefits of gratitude have been studied within numerous fields, noting particularly tangible results in the healthcare sector. In 1998, McCraty and Colleagues noted a 23% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol and a 100% increase in salivary DHEA/DHEAS levels (significantly related to the state of warmheartedness)[xvii], as a result of patients being made to cultivate an appreciation for a period of one month. ‘Even more impressive is that 80% of participants showed changes in heart rate variability, a direct result of reduced stress levels.[xviii]Similarly, in 2007, patients suffering from hypertension displayed a ‘significant decrease in their systolic blood pressure[xix]as a result of counting their blessings once a week. The American Psychological Association conducted a study in 2015, asking heart failure patients to keep a gratitude journal for eight weeks and found that this was associated with ‘better sleep, less fatigue, less depressed mood and better efficacy to maintain cardiac function, with lower levels of the inflammatory biomarker index’.[xx]
How to Practice Gratitude
Mental health and emotional well-being have also been proven to be positively correlated to gratitude practices, due to increased social support, decreased stress, and consequently lower levels of depression. In their 2003 study, Emmons and McCullough[xxi] observed that participants who kept a gratitude journal reported fewer symptoms of physical illness and spent more time pursuing healthier habits such as exercising.
We are not thinking machines that feel, but emotional machines that think.– Dr Antonio Damasio[xxii]
Organizational wellness is evolving to consider the relationship between gratitude and neuroscience, particularly ‘how an active practice of gratitude increases neuron density and leads to higher emotional intelligence.[xxiii] The ability to recognize and cultivate greater opportunities for gratitude and recognition in the workplace will help to advance employee engagement and develop superior ‘neuro leadership’ techniques, found to ‘improve overall psychological capital of the workforce.[xxiv]One study noted that a team of call-center employees made 50% more fundraising calls than their colleagues, as a direct result of being thanked – and therefore motivated by – their manager. According to the Great Place to Work Institute, to be considered for the annual Fortune “100 Best Places to Work” list, an organization must demonstrate a culture of “thanking – showing appreciation and recognition”[xxv]personally and frequently, however, research by Forbes indicated that ‘83% of organizations surveyed suffered from a deficiency in recognition’[xxvi]with a greater focus on employee tenure, which is not directly correlated to performance. In fact, there was a 31% lower voluntary turnover in workplaces with a ‘recognition-rich culture’. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that dopamine and serotonin are known to boost our motivation, willpower, and overall mood, so we would naturally seek gratitude practices in the workplace. ‘When employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, engage in productive relationships, are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.[xxvii]
At a younger age, studies have identified the positive impact of gratitude journaling in adolescents who ‘are more interested and satisfied with their school lives, are more kind and helpful, and are more socially integrated.[xxviii] Students can be encouraged to cultivate an appreciative classroom environment, with a specific curriculum to ‘teach children to think more gratefully’ and to ‘exhibit more grateful behavior, such as writing thank you notes.[xxix]
Given that it enhances prosocial behaviors, such as empathy, generosity, and helpfulness, the rewards of gratitude are just as profound, when it comes to forming and maintaining social relationships. Sara Algoe’s Find-Remind-Bind theory is often referenced as gratitude enables people to ‘identify good candidates for a new relationship (FIND), appreciate existing relationships (REMIND), and motivate people to maintain or invest in these relationships (BIND)’.[xxx] A study of partners noted an improvement in the well-being of their relationship, following a ‘series of conversations expressing gratitude to their partner’, compared to those who only disclosed something personal during their conversation.[xxxi]
Over time, as we become accustomed to the repeated positive experience of the same emotion-inducing stimulus, the perceived benefits start to decrease – this is known as Hedonic Adaptation. ‘Hedonic adaptation is a fact of life, but when we are aware of how it works and how it functions in our lives, we are more able to work around the negatives and engage in activities that are more immune to the stifling effects of the hedonic treadmill’.[xxxiii]
Gratitude interventions are highly effective, as they serve to shift the focus and remind us of all the positive features of our lives–evoking appreciation for what we have, not what we lack – and helping us to value long-term goals, rather than immediate gratification.
Practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives. – Brené Brown [xxxiv]
Perhaps the most eminent intervention, ‘Counting Blessings’ was introduced by Emmons and McCullough in 2003, in which they recommended that participants write down five things for which they were grateful, either daily or weekly, in a ‘Gratitude Journal’.[xxxv] Variations of this have subsequently been studied by multiple researchers over the last 20 years.
In 2005, Seligman and colleagues proposed writing down only three things that had gone well in the participant’s life, as well as going further by ‘identifying the causes of those good things.[xxxvi]In the same study, Seligman also included ‘a gratitude visit’ intervention, in which participants wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude in person to someone who they had never properly thanked.[xxxvii]As Nancy Davis Kho found, ‘strengthening your positive recall bias makes it easier to see the good things around you, even when times are dark.[xxxviii]
In 2008, Koo, Algoe, Wilson & Gilbert asked participants to imagine and write about what their life would be like if a positive event had not occurred. Having completed the reflective exercise in ‘mental subtraction’, participants reported an improved mood.
A 2016 study observed that participants reported higher levels of gratitude after purchasing an experience, such as a ticket to an event, rather than a material good, such as clothes. Researchers Walker, Kumar, and Gilovich suggested that ‘as a naturalistic behavior that is relatively resistant to adaptation, experiential consumption may be an especially easy way to encourage the experience of gratitude.[xxxix]
Professor David DeSteno recommended a ‘Reciprocity ring’, with each person using a post-it note to write down a task that they need help with, before sticking it to a wall, or board, in a circular shape. Each participant then takes a different colored post-it note with their name written on it and sticks it next to a task that they can help out with. This promotes the belief that it is ok to ask for and accept help from others. It also evokes gratitude from the person who has been helped with their task, which dramatically increases the probability that they will pay it forward and offer to help someone else. In summary, it is a highly effective practice to create a culture of gratitude in your workplace, school, or home environment.[xl]
GQ-6 (McCullough, Emmons & Tsang, 2002), the Gratitude Assessment (Hardy, 2010), and the Gratitude Quiz (Adler & Fagley, 2005)help to evoke self-awareness, and effectively evaluate ‘how grateful we feel from the inside and where we might be able to cultivate more gratitude in our lives.[xli]
The struggle ends when gratitude begins.– Neale Donald Walsch [xlii]
Specific factors may affect which people are more likely to opt for and benefit from gratitude intervention practices. Studies suggest that those with fewer depressive symptoms, clear motivation and desire to alter their lifestyle, and greater trait curiosity are more prone to participate. In general, several studies have found that women had a higher propensity to complete the interventions compared to men, which was attributed to the likelihood that boys and men (in the USA) may be more likely to associate gratitude with weakness or indebtedness. Furthermore, the ‘efficacy of some interventions may be somewhat culturally dependent’[xliii] on their context of happiness, with one study noting that the levels of life contentment of white Americans increased more than that of Asian Americans, due to the ‘value individualist cultures place on self-improvement and personal agency, which bolsters the efforts of Anglo Americans to become more satisfied.[xliv] Conversely, for participants in collectivist cultures such as Russia and East Asia, there was an ‘association between the motivation to pursue happiness and definitions of happiness that centers on an engagement with other people.[xlv]Gratitude intervention practices in such societies may then have the undesired effect of simultaneously inducing feelings of guilt and indebtedness.
Enduring gratitude is not just about happiness and positivity; it doesn’t require you to ignore or stifle negative emotions.[xlvi]It is vital to consider the darker side of gratitude and the limitations of its extolled virtues. Those who are disadvantaged or in the minority may experience gratitude practices as diminishing or invalidating the difficulties and challenging circumstances that they are faced with. One study observed that those with disabilities, who received care via informal support networks often felt ‘burdened by gratitude’ and the need to force a show of thanks in order to secure further help. It led to feelings of shame and frustration at their dependent relationship, compared to those who paid for formal support. In relationships where gratitude is viewed as a currency to be traded or repaid, issues may arise where one or both individuals consider an imbalance, and those who focus too heavily on appreciating their partner at all costs, may not remove themselves from abusive relationships when appropriate. Some who are the recipient of a lavish gift or generous favor may find it more complicated to subsequently ‘establish appropriate relationship boundaries’, due to feelings of indebtedness or obligation to the benefactor.[xlvii]Furthermore, individuals who are already prone to anxiety and depression may be triggered to ‘feel like a failure when they are unable to find something to be grateful for[xlviii]in their gratitude practice.
Amie M. Gordon suggests reducing the number of times a week that you write in your gratitude journal, to focus on quality over quantity[xlix] and if you’re not in the mood, reflect on the little things that you can appreciate. Dr. Nekeshia Hammond emphasizes the importance of still validating your feelings whilst practicing gratitude. ‘You can have both: a strong sense of gratitude along with feelings of sadness, confusion, or anxiety.[l]Other more visual gratitude practices, for those who don’t wish to write regularly, might include a ‘wall of gratitude’ full of thank you notes or photos as a reminder of positive experiences and people that we appreciate in our lives. Gratitude researcher Giacomo Bono advocates combatting ‘gratitude guilt’ towards generous benefactors and mentors by ‘letting them know that you’ve put their investment to use…you may never feel like you can pay back your debts, so you shouldn’t try; instead, you should give back through your successes.[li]
Given the relatively new research surrounding gratitude and its place in neuroscience and positive psychology, it is clear that much further exploration is required to classify the variation and context of gratitude experiences, identify why some interventions are more effective for certain groups than others, understand how best to utilize gratitude in healthcare, organizations, and schools and, most importantly, how to mitigate any negative effects of a regular gratitude practice.
When you feel gratitude, you’re willing to sacrifice for your own future self. That’s how you can pivot the power of gratitude from just being this emotion to do the right thing, to repay debts or to behave morally, to actually help your future self achieve her or his own goals.– Professor David DeSteno [lii]
The Effects of Gratitude on You and Your Brain
In summary, there is a wealth of scientific evidence to support the perception that a regular gratitude practice can positively alter our lives, with marked improvements in both physical and mental health, productivity and motivation, and enhanced relationships. However, a gratitude habit should not seek to invalidate or disregard negative emotions or dangerous circumstances, as this can be equally damaging. ‘You can feel all human feelings—rage, despair—and then return to a gratitude practice that helps you see what’s beautiful and joyful and appreciate the people who make your life better. Gratitude is powerful medicine’.[liii]
There is a multitude of gratitude interventions to select from and it is important to be mindful of the participants’ cultural environment, gender, age, current circumstances, and disposition when considering which might be the most appropriate and effective practice(s) for them.
As it relies on the firing and rewiring of positive neural pathways, it will not be an overnight transformation and may take several months to reinforce the gratitude circuits in the brain. Therefore, the greatest key to success is ensuring that the gratitude intervention is suitable and sustainable in the participants’ day-to-day lives.
If you are seeking to overcome certain negative ways of thinking, it is not possible to accomplish that simply by adopting a particular thought or practicing a technique once or twice. Change takes time.– His Holiness the Dalai Lama [liv]
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- [xlii] Neale Donald Walsch quoted in ‘Heal’ – Kelly Noonan Gores
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- [xlviii] https://qz.com/work/1500609/gratitude-has-a-dark-side/
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