August 27, 2013
By Michael Craig Miller M.D.
Harvard Medical School
The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings.
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what a person receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, they usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves— whether to other people, nature or a higher power.
Researchers who study gratitude find that it is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people:
- Feel more positive emotions
- Relish good experiences
- Improve their health
- Deal with adversity
- Build strong relationships
People feel and express gratitude in many ways. They may be grateful for past experiences and memories and for their present circumstances (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes). Maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude is a way people can have gratitude for the future.
Most important, a person can practice gratitude and develop it.
Research on Gratitude
Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude.
In one study, they asked groups of participants to write a few sentences each week. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions. Subjects in his research had to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. Participants immediately displayed a huge increase in happiness scores (compared to a control group). This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.
This research does not prove cause and effect. But most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual's well-being.
Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that people who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person, but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Managers who remember to say "thank you" to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fundraisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fundraisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fundraising calls than those who did not.
How To Cultivate Gratitude
Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.
The following strategies are simplistic, but they are indeed ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis:
- Write thank-you notes. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing thank-you notes when you have received something from them that you enjoy. Also write one any time a person has had a positive influence on your life. Saying thank you in person may be more powerful. It's more than good manners to make a habit of saying thank you; you'll feel better too.
- Thank someone mentally. It may help also to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual. If you think it's appropriate, follow up with a note that might start, "I was thinking of you the other day, about the time you helped me …"
- Keep a "gratitude journal." Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one thoughts about the advantages you have or the ways others have been generous with you. Think about what has gone right for you or what you are grateful for. Identify three to five things. As you write, be specific and think about the feelings you had when something good happened to you.
- Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.
- Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although a very common technique is to focus on your breath, it is also possible to focus on what you're grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, and so on).
Don't wait for Thanksgiving or religious holidays to practice these routines. Make them a constant part of your life and you may be rewarded daily.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is the former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 30 years.