For so many years, psychology's focus was on psychopathology and mental illness. The main goal was to understand the occurrence of mental problems, the course and outcomes of mental illness, and providing support, if not the remedy. Although these topics are undeniably very important and should be explored, it is also important to understand what allows people to be happy and thrive.
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2001) defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community".
It is remarkable how under the same circumstances, one person might be under extreme stress while others will feel motivated, one might be deeply unhappy and another will seem content. Studies suggest that gratitude could be one of the factors that make a difference.
So what is gratitude?
Although many religions emphasize the importance of gratitude, science has neglected this topic for a long time. Luckily, that changed. Many studies have now investigated the positive impact of gratitude, and numerous interventions were created to improve well-being.
Some authors (e.g. Watkins et al, 2003; pp.432) believe that it is crucial to make the distinction between the state and trait of gratitude. The trait of gratitude is a "predisposition to experience gratitude." However, it is essential to keep in mind that this trait just explains how often and easily someone will feel grateful and doesn't imply that someone will always be grateful, no matter what.
On the other hand, a state of gratitude is "a positive, social emotion experienced when an undeserved act of kindness or generosity is freely given by another person" (Rash et al, 2011, pp. 351).
What are the attributes of a grateful person?
Although each of us is unique, it seems that people who are more grateful share some common traits.
Watkins and colleagues (2003) provided 4 key characteristics of a grateful person:
- They don't feel deprived in life
- They appreciate other's contributions to their well-being
- They enjoy "simple" pleasures
- They recognize the importance of both experiencing and expressing gratitude
Other studies (for review see Wood et al., 2010) explored the relationship between personality traits and gratitude. Although those studies did not provide consistent results, some common characteristics of grateful people were extracted. Grateful people were typically not hostile and angry, they experienced positive emotions more often than negative ones, they were warm and altruistic, and they trusted others. Grateful people were more open to their feelings, ideas, and values and they also showed competence, self-discipline, and strove for achievement.
The Power of Thankfulness
There is a growing body of literature that implies that gratitude could be one of the key pillars of mental health and a happy life.
Previous research also showed that grateful people were well-adjusted and happy. Also, gratitude was associated with other positive effects (Watkins et al, 2003). Furthermore, it was shown that practicing gratitude for 4 weeks could increase self-esteem and life satisfaction (Rush et al., 2011).
In three studies, Emmons and McCullough (2003) investigated the effects of gratitude exercises on different aspects of mental health and functioning and also compared the effects of weekly versus daily practicing of gratitude. Practicing gratitude weekly (by making a gratitude list) resulted in a more optimistic perception of one's own life, fewer physical symptoms, and more exercise. Completing a daily gratitude exercise was related to a more positive outlook overall. Interestingly, an increase in prosocial behavior (helping someone, offering emotional support) was also detected.
Practicing gratitude also decreased any negative outlook. Not surprisingly, the increased frequency of gratitude exercises (daily vs. weekly) facilitated gratitude to a greater extent. In other words, to truly benefit from gratitude, one needs to take it on as a daily habit instead of occasionally practicing it.
Practicing gratitude will not just improve your mood and life satisfaction. It could lower the risk of many mental health issues such as major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias, as well as addiction (nicotine, substance abuse, etc.). Interestingly, it was shown that thankfulness could also improve body image and lower the risk for eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa.
Gratitude could be one of the factors that explain the phenomenon called posttraumatic growth, which manifests as higher functioning and greater well-being after trauma. Finally, and not surprisingly, gratitude could also improve the quality of relationships with others (more details could be found in Wood et al, 2010).
Although the majority of studies explored the effects of gratitude on mental health, there are some indications that practicing gratitude could also be beneficial for physical health. For example, one study (Woodet al., 2009) showed that gratitude improved sleep (more specifically sleep quality, sleep duration, and sleep latency).
Incorporating Gratitude into Your Personal and Professional Life
Practicing gratitude doesn't require some special preparation or state of mind. It was proven that even small steps could bring significant positive changes. There are several proven interventions that could help you practice gratitude.
One of the techniques that are often recommended is keeping a list of things that we are grateful for. When we write down something we are increasing the chance that we will remember it (and we can always read it again, especially when we're having a rough time and need encouragement). Additionally, we are shifting our focus. Instead of focusing on negative things (which is important for survival), we are actively searching for positive things and people in our life.
It is up to you whether you keep a journal or just make sticky notes. What is important is consistency. Practicing gratitude doesn't work immediately, but it is highly effective if you embrace it as a lifestyle.
Making a gratitude list is only one of the possible ways for practicing gratitude. Other proven demonstrations are behavioral expression of gratitude and grateful contemplation. One behavioral expression of gratitude would be writing and delivering a gratitude letter to a person that we didn't thank enough. Finally, grateful contemplation refers to thinking about people and moments that we are grateful for and staying in that emotional state (for a detailed review see Rash et al., 2011)
Dealing with Resistance and Finding Gratitude in Tough Times
As we already mentioned, grateful people are not feeling gratitude all the time. That is simply not possible and probably also wouldn't be particularly healthy. Negative emotions are also important, and we shouldn't just suppress them. It is important to make the distinction between practicing gratitude and toxic positivity (which is in fact, very dangerous).
Finding gratitude in tough times isn't about pretending that everything is fine - it's searching for new possibilities or meaning in things that we cannot change. For example, when dealing with losing a loved one (or even losing a job), it is natural to grieve. But it will be helpful if you can experience gratitude for the fact that you were able to meet and share special moments with them. You would still be sad but will likely use healthier coping strategies.
So how do you find gratitude even during a tough time? Although there is no one recipe that works always for everyone, there are simple steps that could help you. Those are:
- Enjoy simple pleasures - whether it is the smell of morning coffee, a sunny (or rainy?!) day, a short chat with colleagues, or hugging a kid or pet.
- Stay connected - with people who you love who share ideals and values that mean something to you.
- Try to be present - do not dwell on things that already happened in the past and that cannot be fixed. Focus on what you can do now to make things right. Also, do not worry about the future. Overthinking just gives you the illusion of control while taking the joy out of life.
- Express gratitude. Even during the hardest time, when you feel like there is nothing to be thankful for, you can still create change. Be the reason why someone is thankful today.
Embracing Gratitude as a Pathway to Personal Growth and Fulfillment
Although it seems that some people are better at expressing and experiencing gratitude, this is a skill that can be learned and improved over time. Knowing the numerous positive effects that are associated with gratitude, it certainly is worth trying.
We mentioned some of the effective yet simple techniques that each of us can use on a daily basis. Try it and see what works best for you. Perhaps you'll come up with some new ways of practicing gratitude. There is no wrong way.
In case you are still not convinced that gratitude is a pathway to personal growth and fulfillment, try one little experiment: for the next four weeks, try writing down (each day) 3 things you are thankful for that day (no matter how small or big they are). After you are done, tell us how you feel.
And finally, you can find some famous quotes about gratitude that might inspire you to be more grateful here.
Emmons, R.A. (2004). The psychology of gratitude. In R.A. Emmons & M.E. McCullough (Eds.), The psychology of gratitude (pp. 3–16). New York: Oxford University Press.
Eamons, B., & Mc Cullough, 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, 84(2), 377-389.
Rash, J. A., Matsuba, M. K., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Gratitude and well‐being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention?. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 3(3), 350-369.
Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 31(5), 431-451.
WHO (2001). Strengthening mental health promotion. Geneva, World Health Organization (Fact sheet, No. 220).
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude infuences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43−48.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 890-905.