Gratitude: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

research-the science of gratitudeThere are so many things I love about Autumn days—and yes, we get them even in Southern California. A crispy edge to the air; pumpkins, cranberries and turkeys, falling leaves drifting by the window —(to borrow a little poetic imagery from Nat King Cole)—and of course, all the Facebook posts from friends who are counting down the days of November with reasons to be thankful.

Some of my friends have momentous events to be thankful for: the birth of a child, an engagement, a championship trophy. Some may seem less earth-shattering. “Today, I’m thankful that, for the first time in many years, I will be hosting Thanksgiving,” wrote one friend. “I’m thankful it’s going to be a short school week for my son,” wrote another. These two friends in particular have proven resilient through some difficult times over the years, and it struck me that they both took the time to express gratitude for some deceptively simple things. Could their “attitude of gratitude” be part of the reason for their resilience?

Knowing all my friends, I’m certain that their expressions of gratitude come from the heart and are voiced without the anticipation of payback. But in actual fact, the simple act of taking time to reflect on whatever we have to be grateful for does pay dividends, say researchers, no matter how great or small our gifts.

What kinds of dividends?

Beginning with the big picture, several studies point to gratitude as being an overall key to happiness. One way gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends, not only because of the positive feelings we evoke in them when we thank them—but also because of the pleasure we feel when we make others feel appreciated. At the same time, however, we increase the degree of responsibility we feel for their future welfare which may make us more invested in strengthening the relationship further. This is good for our brain in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, and the stronger our relationships, the happier we are in general. But there are also more specific ways gratitude pays us back.

Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are two of many researchers around the world who focus on the effects of gratitude. In a 2003 study, they looked at how gratitude affects well-being by comparing three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks. Each group had a different assignment: one was to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. The second were to report on negative aspects: irritating or annoying events. The third  were simply to report on any events that “had an impact.”

As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, the “gratitude” group ended up with the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They had fewer symptoms of illness, spent more time exercising, reported higher levels of positive emotions, more sleep, better sleep quality, greater optimism and a greater sense of interpersonal connection than those in the other two groups. They also were more likely to have helped someone, or to have offered emotional support to others. A few years later, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Those patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher on measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who simply kept routine notes about daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh have also focused on gratitude, particularly in children and teens. (Their new book, Making Grateful Kids, is due out in February 2014. Stay tuned, I fully intend to review it here.) In research they presented at meetings of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh found that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” Fortunately, say the researchers, if your teen isn’t yet up to snuff on the gratitude scale, never fear. This is a habit that can be developed.

This is good news, especially in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that men tend to have a more difficult time feeling and expressing gratitude than women.  Men tend to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . and as a result, less gratitude, he found. This was especially true when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

Whatever your gender, if you’re up for change in mental or physical well-being, you could do worse than to try the same exercise used in much of the above research: journal about the things in your life that you can feel grateful for. Even if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook. Of course, as you become adept at noticing more of the “little things,” like my two Facebook friends, you may be able to come up with far more than that.

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For more about the science of gratitude, you might want to check out these researchers whose work appears in recent journal issues from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology:

David DeSteno, Northeastern University

DeSteno’s work shows the social benefits of feeling gratitude: how it makes us more resilient, how it makes us more honest and cooperative, how it alters our financial decisions such that we favor the greater good, and how it makes us “pay virtue forward” without even knowing it.

Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA

Eisenberger’s work focuses on measuring gene expression and using brain scanning to examine some of the biological and neurological effects of being grateful.

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