Every year on Thanksgiving, we reflect on and express our feelings of gratitude. How does this practice help make our lives -- and our relationships -- happier and healthier?
First: What Is Gratitude?
“Gratitude” was once traditionally defined as the emotion that you experience after receiving help from someone else and direct towards the provider of that help (or the benefactor). However, given that people can be grateful for things like "waking up in the morning" (an experience with no clear benefactor), the conceptualization of gratitude has since been expanded.
Now, most researchers consider gratitude to be more of a "general life orientation," distinct from similar concepts like optimism or hope, focused on appreciating other people, paying attention to what you have, feeling awe in the presence of beauty, focusing on positive things in the present moment, and understanding that life is short and must be lived to the fullest.
Why Is Gratitude Great?
There are a lot of truly amazing outcomes linked to experiencing higher levels of gratitude.
Grateful people are more:
- Open to experiencing different feelings, ideas, and values
- Competent, dutiful, and achievement-striving
- Talkative, emotionally warm, activity-seeking, and prone to experiencing positive emotions
- Trusting, altruistic, and tender-minded
Grateful people are less:
- Angry and hostile
- Emotionally vulnerable
More Effective Trauma Recovery: Although war veterans who suffer from PTSD generally experience less regular gratitude than those who don't, PTSD sufferers who do experience gratitude in conjunction with their condition experience better daily functioning and improved recovery. Typically, trauma recovery is more successful when people are able to feel like they received some sort of benefit from the experience. In fact, some people even report higher levels of well-being or daily functioning after trauma than beforehand. While trauma should never be seen as in anyway a "good thing," it is worth noting that people often note that they find themselves "living life to the fullest," valuing each day, and experiencing greater appreciation for the world around them after recovering from a trauma.
Stronger Relationships: People who experience more gratitude on a regular basis are generally also more willing to forgive others, exhibit lower levels of narcissism, and engage in more relationship strengthening behaviors.
Improved Health: Higher levels of gratitude are consistently linked to lower levels of stress -- a psychosocial experience that is linked to all sorts of negative health outcomes. People who participate in gratitude interventions also tend to report more (and better) sleep -- they sleep for longer, fall asleep faster, and their sleep is higher-quality. Most of this is due to the fact that they are less likely to have negative thoughts bouncing around in their head at night when they're lying in bed.
Well-Being: Gratitude is consistently linked to higher life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, and more regular experiences of positive affect.
What Can You Do?
Luckily, even if you are not a naturally "gratitude-prone" person, interventions are really common in the gratitude literature -- and Thanksgiving, naturally, provides an amazing opportunity to implement one in your own life. The three most common interventions are (1) gratitude lists (making a list of things in your life for which you are grateful), (2) grateful contemplation (globally "thinking about things" or "writing about things" for which you are grateful, without specifically listing them out one by one), and (3) behavioral expressions (writing letters, buying gifts, or otherwise personally thanking people to whom you are grateful).
Not only are interventions common, they tend to work beautifully. In one study, participants wrote about people, items, or moments that made them feel grateful twice a week over the course of four weeks. Compared to control participants who just wrote about "memorable events" in their lives, at the end of the study, these "gratitude" participants reported higher levels of life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, and lower daily experiences of positive emotions. Hooking the participants up to psychophysiological equipment while they completed this intervention revealed something else pretty cool -- while they were completing the task, they actually displayed higher levels of cardiac coherence, a physiological indicator linked to lower levels of stress, higher overall well-being, better cognition, and improved social performance.
Thanksgiving Every Day
As we sit down for Thanksgiving and take a moment to feel grateful for the good things in our lives, it's nice to know that these experiences -- and expressions -- have real, important benefits. With the New Year coming up, perhaps a great resolution would be to ensure that we continue reaping the benefits of this emotion by treating every other day of the year the same way!
Image by Yoga4Love via Wikimedia