Feelings 101

GRATITUDE 101

Gratitude, thankfulness, or gratefulness is the proper, fitting or called-for response to benefits or beneficence from a benefactor. The experience of gratitude has historically been a focus of several world religions. It has also been a topic of interest to ancient, medieval and modern philosophers, and continues to engage contemporary western philosophers today. The systematic study of gratitude within psychology only began around the year 2000, possibly because psychology has traditionally been focused more on understanding distress rather than understanding positive emotions. The study of gratitude within psychology has focused on the understanding of the short term experience of the emotion of gratitude (state gratitude), individual differences in how frequently people feel gratitude (trait gratitude), and the relationship between these two aspects.

Comparison with indebtedness

Gratitude is not the same as indebtedness. While both emotions occur following help, indebtedness occurs when a person perceives that they are under an obligation to make some repayment of compensation for the aid. The emotions lead to different actions; indebtedness can motivate the recipient of the aid to avoid the person who has helped them, whereas gratitude can motivate the recipient to seek out their benefactor and to improve their relationship with them.

As a motivator of behavior

Gratitude may also serve to reinforce future prosocial behavior in benefactors. For example, one experiment found that customers of a jewelry store who were called and thanked showed a subsequent 70% increase in purchases. In comparison, customers who were called and told about a sale showed only a 30% increase in purchases, and customers who were not called at all did not show an increase. In another study, regular patrons of a restaurant gave bigger tips when servers wrote “Thank you” on their checks.

Individual differences

Much of the recent work psychological research into gratitude has focused on the nature of individual difference in gratitude, and the consequences of being a more or less grateful person. Three scales have been developed to measure individual differences in gratitude, each of which assesses somewhat different conceptions. The GQ6 measures individual differences in how frequently and intensely people feel gratitude. The Appreciation Scale measures 8 different aspects of gratitude: appreciation of people, possessions, the present moment, rituals, feeling of awe, social comparisons, existential concerns, and behaviour which expresses gratitude. The GRAT assesses gratitude towards other people, gratitude towards the world in general, and a lack of resentment for what you do not have. A recent study showed that each of these scales are actually all measuring the same way of approaching life; this suggests that individual differences in gratitude include all of these components.

Empirical findings

Association with well-being

A large body of recent work has suggested that people who are more grateful have higher levels of subjective well-being. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. Specifically, in terms of depression, gratitude may serve as a buffer by enhancing the coding and retrievability of positive experiences. Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance. Grateful people have more positive ways of coping with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpret and grow from experiences, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem. Grateful people also have less negative coping strategies, being less likely to try to avoid the problem, deny there is a problem, blame themselves, or cope through substance use. Grateful people sleep better, and this seems to be because they think less negative and more positive thoughts just before going to sleep.

Gratitude has been said to have one of the strongest links with mental health of any character trait. Numerous studies suggest that grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress and depression.

While many emotions and personality traits are important to well-being, there is evidence that gratitude may be uniquely important. First, a longitudinal study showed that people who were more grateful coped better with a life transition. Specifically, people who were more grateful before the transition were less stressed, less depressed, and more satisfied with their relationships three months later. Second, two recent studies have suggested that gratitude may have a unique relationship with well-being, and can explain aspects of well-being that other personality traits cannot. Both studies showed that gratitude was able to explain more well-being than the Big Five and 30 of the most commonly studied personality traits.

Relationship to altruism

Gratitude has also been shown to improve a person’s altruistic tendencies. One study conducted by David DeSteno and Monica Bartlett (2010) found that gratitude is correlated with economic generosity. In this study, using an economic game, increased gratitude was shown to directly mediate increased monetary giving. From these results, this study shows that grateful people are more likely to sacrifice individual gains for communal profit (DeSteno & Bartlett, 2010). A study conducted by McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, (2002) found similar correlations between gratitude and empathy, generosity, and helpfulness.

Psychological interventions

Given that gratitude appears to be a strong determinant of people’s well-being, several psychological interventions have been developed to increase gratitude. For example, Watkins and colleagues had participants test a number of different gratitude exercises, such as thinking about a living person for whom they are grateful, writing about someone for whom they are grateful, and writing a letter to deliver to someone for whom they are grateful. Participants in the control condition were asked to describe their living room. Participants who engaged in a gratitude exercise showed increases in their experiences of positive emotion immediately after the exercise, and this effect was strongest for participants who were asked to think about a person for whom they are grateful. Participants who had grateful personalities to begin with showed the greatest benefit from these gratitude exercises. In another study concerning gratitude, participants were randomly assigned to one of six therapeutic intervention conditions designed to improve the participants’ overall quality of life (Seligman et al., 2005). Out of these conditions, it was found that the biggest short-term effects came from a “gratitude visit” where participants wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude to someone in their life. This condition showed a rise in happiness scores by 10 percent and a significant fall in depression scores, results which lasted up to one month after the visit. Out of the six conditions, the longest lasting effects were associated with the act of writing “gratitude journals” where participants were asked to write down three things they were grateful for every day. These participants’ happiness scores also increased and continued to increase each time they were tested periodically after the experiment. In fact, the greatest benefits were usually found to occur around six months after treatment began. This exercise was so successful that although participants were only asked to continue the journal for a week, many participants continued to keep the journal long after the study was over. Similar results have been found from studies conducted by Emmons and McCullough (2003) and Lyubomirsky et. all. (2005). See also gratitude journal.

Recently (2013), the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has been offering awards for dissertation-level research projects with the greatest potential to advance the science and practice of gratitude.

Conclusions

According to Cicero, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Multiple studies have shown the correlation between gratitude and increased wellbeing not only for the individual but for all people involved. The positive psychology movement has embraced these studies and in an effort to increase overall well-being, has begun to make an effort to incorporate exercises to increase gratitude into the movement. Although in the past gratitude has been neglected by psychology, in recent years much progress has been made in studying gratitude and its positive effects.


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