With the Thanksgiving holiday here, many people focus on family and friends while counting their blessings. Yet, expressing gratitude is more than just an element of Thanksgiving rituals, it is a significant contributor to our own happiness and well-being.
In addition to being backed up by science and religious practice, cultivating gratitude can become an important life-long skill that improves one’s own joy.
The scientific literature views gratitude as an acknowledgement that we received something of value from others’ benevolence and that our feelings emanate from a position of openness and genuine appreciation (Emmons & Mishra, 2011). Reflecting on examples from my own life, I have found myself expressing gratitude toward my grandmother who made my attending college possible, toward my undergraduate mentor who steered me toward a career in psychology, and toward my friends and family members who supported me when dealing with dying parents.
When we express gratitude, we acknowledge a link between ourself and others, and we recognize that someone else’s actions had a meaningful impact on our lives. Although we often view this as an act of kindness toward them, research has shown that it has tangible benefits for the self as well.
Why does gratitude benefit the self?
Scientific findings show that expressing gratitude toward others helps us cope better with stress. For instance, expressing gratitude builds social bonds and establishes prosocial behavioral repretoires (Fredrickson, 2013), and it fosters reciprocal altruism (McCullough et al., 2008). Thus, expressing gratitude toward others builds social support systems and develops new and deeper skill sets that helps us deal with life’s challenging moments.
In addition, expressing gratitude can reduce negative social comparisons. In other words, focusing on others being in a better position who can help us rather than being people we should envy increases positive emotions (McCullough et al., 2008). Thus, rather than looking up at "better-off others" with jealousy, gratitude reduces envy and helps to build joy, which is a perspective not only backed by scientific findings but advocated by spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a core element in experiencing life-long happiness (Dali Lama et al., 2016).
Finally, by focusing on others’ benevolence rather than their possessions or positions, expressing gratitude can reduce materialistic strivings and increase our concern with others’ welfare. Indeed, considerable research has shown that a focus on materialism leads people to experience less life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, and greater depression (Kasser & Kanner, 2003). Thus, by reflecting on social benevolence and human interdependence, we think less about things and more about social connections that further enhance our own joy.
How can we cultivate more gratitude?
If the science and philosophical perspectives underlying the benefits of gratitude have you longing to express more of it, there are a number of simple techniques shown to improve gratitude and trigger its benefits. Here are some activities that I use in my undergraduate courses that have been especially meaningful to my students (each backed up by scientific support for its value).
1) Set aside a few minutes to count one’s blessings and write them down. Just listing the positive things in one’s life and actively reflecting on them can enhance gratitude and its positive benefits for the self.
2) Write a couple of gratitude letters and then visit the recipients to read the letters aloud to them (without letting them know in advance why you want to visit them). In a world filled with hastily tapped out text messages and impersonal interactions, composing a heart-felt letter of genuine sentiments and delivering it in person can be powerful.
3) Invest in others. Research by Dunn et al. (2008) shows that spending money on others, rather than on oneself, maximizes happiness. Their research shows that spending even small amounts of money ($5 or $20) on others makes people happier than spending the same amounts of money on oneself. When we spend money on others for even small things (e.g., buying a friend a coffee, leaving an anonymous flower on a coworker’s desk), it not only brighten someone else’s day, but improves our well-being too.
Dalai Lama, Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. (2016). The book of joy. New York: Avery.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.
Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. In Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T., & Steger, M.F. (Eds.), Designing the future of positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 248-262). New York: Oxford University Press.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1-53.
Kasser, T., & Kanner, A. D. (2003). Psychology and consumer culture: The struggle for a good life in a materialistic world. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
McCullough, M. E., Kimeldorf, M. B., & Cohen, A. D. (2008). An adaptation for altruism? The social causes, social effects, and social evolution of gratitude. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 281–285.