We all want to be happy. I just visited my local bookstore and found over 300 books on how to feel a sense of happiness and well-being. What if I told you there is a simple practice that could have a meaningful impact on your happiness that is supported by a multitude of scientific studies. Well, that simple practice is gratitude.
I know, it sounds new-agey and maybe even a little flaky, but there is a whole body of scientific research that supports the extensive and powerful impact of gratitude on many aspects of well-being. This is not a new idea—gratitude has been a fundamental tenet of Buddhism for over 2000 years. But now psychologists Alex Wood, Jeffrey Froh and Adam Geraghty have examined the research on this concept, and found convincing evidence of gratitude’s role in many aspects of emotional and mental health.
But first, what do we mean by gratitude? Is it just being thankful when someone does something for you, or more than that? As defined and tested by psychologists, gratitude generally refers to a person’s consistent tendency towards “noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.” More specifically, Wood, and his colleagues identify eight aspects of gratitude that fully encompass what this orientation is all about:
- Feeling grateful
- Appreciation of other people
- A focus on what you have (rather than what you don’t have)
- Feeling awe when encountering beauty
- Doing things that express gratitude (thanking people)
- Focusing on the positive in the present moment
- Appreciation rising from the realization that life is short
- Comparing yourself favorably to less-fortunate others
So how do these kinds of thoughts and actions relate to psychological health? Let me count the ways! First, being high in gratitude is related to having fewer psychopathological symptoms and disorders. For example, people high in gratitude are less likely to be depressed. Researchers also found that people who are thankful have a lower rate of developing psychiatric disorders (including generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, alcohol dependence, and bulimia). Gratitude also plays an interesting role in recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologists have long known that finding a purpose or silver lining in a traumatic event helps people cope better, and those high in gratitude are more likely respond to trauma this way.
Second, many studies done over the last 30 years found that people high in gratitude feel happier and are more satisfied with life than those low in gratitude. More specifically, gratitude is related to what’s called eudemonic well-being. This refers to feeling like you are living life to the fullest, and are making the most of your potential. In one study, gratitude predicted feelings of autonomy, control over one’s environment, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Amazing! Eudemonic well-being may be a particularly important and long-term component of mental health, as researchers found that people low in eudemonic well-being are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression ten years after gratitude levels were originally measured.
Feeling and practicing gratitude is strongly related to individual well-being, but also has a major impact on our relationships with others. People high in gratitude report higher feelings of emotional intimacy in their relationships. They are more likely to be willing to forgive others, and engage in constructive conflict resolution. Having emotionally satisfying relationships with others is one of the most powerful predictors of mental health. People high in gratitude are also good for society at large. They are more likely to have sympathy for the distress of others, and to act in altruistic, prosocial ways.
It’s remarkable that this one specific mindset could have such a wide-ranging positive effect on an individual’s mental state and social relationships. And what is great is how easily it can be practiced. Simply making a daily list of things you are thankful for is effective. I remember when one of my daughters was overwhelmed with worry about something, we would together think of “five good things” about her life, and it always had a calming effect. Gratitude has also played a role in how much I enjoy attending services at my synagogue. At each service there is an opportunity for silent prayer, and I’ve made a habit of using that time to concentrate on things I’m thankful for in that week. It isn’t always easy—sometimes life is a challenging mess! But I find it centers me, and helps me get a healthy perspective on what’s important.
What’s great is that this is a very easy practice to learn.
If it feels awkward at first, there are many free websites to help you along, and also hundreds of books on how to make it a part of your everyday life. It can make you happier, improve your relationships, and quite possibly make you a better member of your community. Why not give it a try?