It's the holiday season, and everyone talks about being grateful. For those among us who find it easy to feel grateful, here's research to back up your natural inclination. For anyone who might need a little prodding, just keep reading, you may decide that gratitude isn't just a word, but a meaningful and life enhancing energy to invite into your life. And it's free. How many things can make this promise?
Gratitude, according to current research, can do anything from helping you to achieve your goals more fluidly, to improving your skills of empathy and resilience. Through a cutting edge study supported by the John Templeton Foundation, Dr. Robert Emmons et al engaged in a long-term project designed to accumulate and disseminate scientific data on the nature of gratitude and its potential impact on human health and well-being. What they discovered makes gratitude seem like a very good idea on several fronts.
For starters, the team found that grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions life satisfaction, vitality and optimism than their less grateful counterparts. Not surprisingly then, grateful people also appeared to experience lower levels of depression and stress. So not only does gratitude make us feel better over all, it actually seems to buffer against depleting emotions.
This does not mean that grateful people deny or ignore life's negative aspects, only that their feelings of thankfulness and appreciation act as a protective factor against life's problems keeping them down. Resilience in the making!
Getting and staying in shape was also in the picture as those who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly during the week, reported fewer physical symptoms and said they felt better about their lives as a whole. To top it off, they were also more optimistic about the upcoming week than the other group who reported experiencing more hassles and/or just sort of neutral days. (Emmons and McCullough 2009)
And this group didn't just sit around humming Kumbaya and reciting their gratitude lists. They were also found to attain their goals more fluidly and easily. The participants who wrote gratitude lists were actually more likely to have made progress toward their own self stated goals related to academic, interpersonal and health issues over a two-month period as compared with their counterparts who kept no such lists. Additionally the gratitude list group, reported higher levels of positive states like alertness, enthusiasm, motivation, attentiveness determination and energy compared with the other group. Each group experienced the same amount of negative emotions but their positive emotions acted as a buffer against spiraling downwards. The gratitude group reported experiencing an enhanced state of well being.
An Easier Time Getting Along: An Increase in Empathy
In addition to personal gains, there were relationship gains as well, we simply appear to feel better about others when we feel better inside ourselves. Those in the study who experienced gratitude, were also better able to see life through another person's eyes, they were more empathic. In fact they were rated as more generous and helpful by people in their social networks (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002). Those in the daily gratitude group "were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another," according to researchers. And good vibrations have a way of spreading, "children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families" (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2009, 2010).
And the gains go on...
It wasn't only the generic sounding goals of achievement in life and love that showed up as gains from gratitude. There is a sort of peace of mind that appears to come with an "attitude of gratitude," "grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and others success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of others; and are more likely to share their possessions with others, relative to less grateful persons." Grateful people seem to find it easier to love what they have, they aren't so preoccupied with the kinds of insecurities that come from "comparing and despairing" or "comparing their insides with everyone else's outsides."
And not so surprisingly, the study also found that:
... those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities such as prayer and/or reading religious material are more likely to score high on gratitude scales. Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment to and responsibility to others (McCullough et al, 2002). Gratitude does not require religious faith, but faith enhances the ability to be grateful.
So whatever your motivation, whether it's feeling better right now, getting along more easily with others or achieving your goals with less wear and tear, gratitude appears to be worth considering as a strategy. Why not grab a pen and make a list; there's no time like the present! Today I am grateful for...
Emmons, R. A. (2009). The John Templeton Foundation. In S.J. Lopez & A. Beauchamp (Eds.),Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology (pp. 988-990). New York: Oxford University Press.
Farhadian, C., & Emmons, R. A. (2009). The psychology of forgiveness and religions. In A. Kalayjiain & R.F. Paloutzian (Eds.). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Psychological pathways to conflict transformation and peace building (pp. 55-70). New York: Springer.
Froh, J. J., Bono, G., & Emmons, R. A. (2010). Being grateful is beyond good manners: Gratitude and motivation to contribute to society among early adolescents. Motivation and Emotion, 34, 144-157.
Follow Dr. Tian Dayton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tian_dayton