In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses eight ways gratitude boosts happiness.
Here’s what she had to say in more detail, interspersed with my comments:
First, grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences. By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances. When my first child was only a few months old, an older woman approached me while I was struggling with the stroller. “Your baby is so beautiful,: she said. “appreciate this age; it goes by so fast!” At the time I was feeling overwhelmed an sleep-deprived and, to be honest, didn’t much appreciate her glib intrusion, but it had a powerful effect. Taking time to feel grateful for this small child allowed me to step outside the dreariness of my long days caring for her and to savor the magic of the small moment I shared with my daughter.
Part of happiness is evaluating the past. Was it meaningful? Was it a rich experience? Savoring positive life experiences helps expand the story of your life, filling out the good parts and making the overall tone more positive.
Second, expressing gratitude bolsters self-worth and self-esteem. When
you realize how much people have done for you or how much you have accomplished, you feel more confident and efficacious. Unfortunately, for many people, it comes more naturally to focus on failures and disappointments or on other people’s slights and hurts. Gratefulness can help you
unlearn this habit. Instead of automatically thinking, “Woe is me,” in response to any setback, the practice of gratitude encourages you instead to consider what you value about your current life or how you are thankful that things aren’t worse.
Considering what you value about your current life, realizing that your accomplishments are a combination of others’ help as well as your own talents and efforts – and being grateful not only for what people have done for you but for what you’ve been able to accomplish – can give you a greater sense of confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth. What others have done and what you’ve done have completely merged, combining into something meaningful and valuable.
Third, gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma. That is, the ability to appreciate your life circumstances may be an adaptive coping method by which you positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences.5 Indeed, traumatic memories are less likely to surface – and are less intense when they do – in those who are regularly grateful.6 Interestingly, people instinctively express gratitude when confronted with adversity. For example, in the days immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, gratitude was found to be the second most commonly experienced emotion (after sympathy).7
Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness, as hard as that might be, can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do. In one of my recent courses, I had a severely disabled older student named Brian. He has some mobility, but not much, in his hands and is able to control a wheelchair by pressing on a lever located near his shoulder with his bent right hand. One day the class was going around the room and talking about their happiest moments in life. This is what Brian said: “My happiest moment is kind of a perverse one. It was the day that I came home from the hospital, after my accident. I felt defiant. I said, ‘Ha! I’m still alive! I beat you!’ I don’t know who exactly I beat. But I felt grateful that I was home. It seemed like a little thing, but being home from the hospital after four months was so good.” Echoing this perspective, sixty-seven-year-old Inger, who had been given a short time to live, described her illness this way: “When you can hear the minutes ticking and you know the buzzer is going to go off in any minute and your time will be up, you see things so clearly. You just know without a doubt where your values are and why you’re alive, and you’re so grateful for each moment.”8 Inger and Brian have a remarkable capacity for gratitude, a capacity that undoubtedly serves them well in both sickness and health.
Gratitude helps you stay in better balance. When things are really tough, of course you need to deal with the specific difficulties as best you can, but being grateful for the good things helps you to keep perspective and emotional resilience. There are always a lot of things other than the problems that are good. And some problems even have a silver lining.
Fourth, the expression of gratitude encourages moral behavior. As I mentioned earlier, grateful people are more likely to help others (e.g., you become aware of kind and caring acts and feel compelled to reciprocate) and less likely to be materialistic (e.g., you appreciate what you have and become less fixated on acquiring more stuff). To wit, an Auschwitz survivor was once described this way: “His life was rooted in gratitude. He was generous, because the memory of having nothing was never far from his mind.”9 In one study, people induced to be grateful for a specific kind act were more likely to be helpful toward their benefactor, as well as toward a stranger, even when the helping involved doing an unpleasant, tedious chore.10
Negative emotion is needed to deal with threats. But positive emotion broadens and builds. Gratitude can make you feel more full. You have more; you want to give, to provide benefit.
Fifth, gratitude can help build social bonds, strengthening existing relationships and nurturing new ones.11 Keeping a gratitude journal, for example, can produce feelings of greater connectedness with others. Several studies have shown that people who feel gratitude toward particular individuals (even when they never directly express it) experience closer and “higher-quality” relationships with them,12 As Robert Emmons argues, when you become truly aware of the value of your friends and family members, you are likely to treat them better, perhaps producing an “upward spiral,” a sort of positive feedback loop, in which strong relationships give you something to be grateful for, and in turn fortifying those very same relationships. In addition, a grateful person is a more positive person, and positive people are better liked by others and more likely to win friends.13
Take a minute to think about (or even write down) several reasons to be grateful about each of the important people in your life. Cultivating gratitude toward these people is likely to have a positive impact on your attitude toward them as well as how you treat them. When you treat them better they’re more likely to treat you better. Magic.
Sixth, expressing gratitude tends to inhibit invidious comparisons with others. If you are genuinely thankful and appreciative for what you have (e.g., family, health, home), you are less likely to pay close attention to or envy what the Joneses have.
When you really think about it, there is so much to be grateful for and to appreciate. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not starving, at severe risk because of lack of protection from the elements, or in imminent danger because of a war or calamity. You’ve probably been shielded from virtually all of the most urgent and severe problems people have been dealing with throughout history. Some problems remain, but relatively speaking, life is good.
Seventh, the practice of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, bitterness, and greed.14 As one psychiatrist has argued, “gratitude . . . dissolves negative feelings: anger and jealousy melt in its embrace, fear and defensiveness shrink.”15 Indeed, it’s hard to feel guilty or resentful or infuriated when you’re feeling grateful. My friend’s sister is one of the few working moms I know who feel not an ounce of guilt. The reason is that she is a prodigy at asking friends and family for help and thanking them so profusely and sincerely afterward that they feel like rock stars.
Gratitude is not a matter of tricking yourself into focusing on the positive instead of the negative. (But even if it were, the paragraph above still holds true!) We usually think our bad moods are justified, but emotion can often be changed completely when we realize the facts underlying our assumptions are different from what we thought. Sometimes by examining the facts and seeing them in a different light, there are good reasons to be grateful. This gratitude can help clear away the remaining negative emotion that doesn’t need to be there any more.
Last but not least, gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation. If you recall, hedonic adaptation is illustrated by our remarkable capacity to adjust rapidly to any new circumstance or event. This is extremely adaptive when the new event is unpleasant, but not when a new event is positive. So, when you gain something good in your life – a romantic partner, a genial officemate, recovery from illness, a brand-new car – there is an immediate boost in happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, because of hedonic adaptation, that boost is usually short-lived. As I’ve argued earlier, adaptation to all things positive is essentially the enemy of happiness, and one of the keys to becoming happier lies in combating its effects, which gratitude does quite nicely. By preventing people from taking the good things in their lives for granted – from adapting to their positive life circumstances – the practice of gratitude can directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation.
Human beings are very good at adapting. For a lot of things good and bad, you get used to the new situation pretty quickly. How do you make good things last? One way is pursuing things that actually are more likely to make you happier in the long run. The other is by cultivating gratitude, which seems to renew (to some extent) the benefit of the good thing by reviving our appreciation for it.
*For a technical discussion of psychological studies which have addressed the question of whether gratitude produces greater happiness, see Does Gratitude cause Happiness? A Meta-analysis.”
5. Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., and Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 11, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84: 365-76.
6. Watkins, P. C., Grimm, D. L., and Kolts, R. (2004). Counting your blessings: Positive memories among grateful persons. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 23: 52-67.
7. Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.
8. Malin, A. (2003, September). Maximum joy: 14 ways to feel lucky you’re alive. Prevention.
9. Casey, M. J. (2006, October 20). A survivor’s optimism. New York Times.
10. Bartlett, M. Y, and DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological Science, 17: 319-25.
11. McCullough, M.E., Bellah, G.C., Kilpatrick, S.D., & Johnson, J.L. (2001). Vengefulness: Relationships with forgiveness, rumination, well-being, and the Big Five. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 601-610. Emmons, R.A., McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 84 (2), pp. 377-389.
12. Algoe, S. B., Haidt, J., Gable, S. L., and Strachman, A. (2007). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Manuscript under review.
13. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.
14. McCullough, M.E., Emmons, R.A., and Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82: 112-27.
15. Quote from psychiatrist Roger Walsh.