Overview of the Research on Gratitude
According to the world’s leading gratitude researcher and expert, Dr. Robert Emmons (2010), engaging in gratitude has a positive impact on our minds, relationships, and even our physical well-being. Emmons reports that science has studied over a thousand individuals around the globe, ranging from children to seniors, and discovered that those who practice gratitude experience numerous psychological benefits, including higher levels of positive emotions, greater joy and pleasure, more happiness and optimism, and greater feelings of alertness. Socially, people who exercise gratitude are found to be more forgiving, generous, compassionate, outgoing, and less likely to feel lonely. But, perhaps the most intriguing of the findings, practicing gratitude is also correlated with having a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, better quality sleep, and feeling less frustrated by aches and pains.
Gratitude & Children
Froh, Bono, Emmons, Wood, et al. (2010) employed a gratitude intervention in school classrooms, with some of the youngest participants to date, children ages 8–11. For this study, school psychology interns taught child participants about the causes of gratitude through structured lesson plans. Using classroom discussions, role-playing, and keeping a gratitude journal, children were instructed about the connection between positive things happening to them and the actions of a benefactor. The researchers found that children can be taught to become more aware of the role that our thoughts play in the choices we make in our social interactions. They also discovered that this awareness makes children more grateful and benefits their well-being. Weekly gratitude instruction correlated with positive effects up to five months later, and daily instruction produced immediate impacts. These results included children expressing gratitude more often, for example, writing 80% more thank you cards to their PTA, and their teachers observing them to be happier compared to children who did not receive the gratitude instruction.
Gratitude & College Students
Emmons & McCullough (2003) conducted a study of 192 undergraduates enrolled in a health psychology class at a large, public university, to investigate the impact of gratitude on well-being. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions, two control groups or a gratitude intervention group. For 10 weeks, one control group was asked to write about five events that impacted them that week, the second group wrote about five hassles they experienced that week, and the third group wrote about five things they were grateful for that week. Participants were also asked to complete weekly ratings of how they felt about life overall (from terrible to delighted), their expectations for the upcoming week (from pessimistic to optimistic), and how connected they felt to others (from isolated to well-connected). The researchers found that participants randomly assigned to the gratitude intervention showed increased positive affect relative to control participants, reporting that they felt better about their lives in general, were more optimistic about the upcoming week, and felt more connected with others.
Gratitude & Adults
Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson (2005) conducted a study of 411 adults to assess the impacts of key positive psychology interventions, including two gratitude interventions. In one intervention, participants were asked to write and subsequently deliver in person a letter of gratitude to someone who had done something kind for them, but who they never properly thanked. In a second intervention, participants were asked to write three things they were thankful for each day and their causes, every night for a week. The results demonstrated that those who participated in writing and personally delivering a letter of gratitude, experienced an immediate 10% increase in happiness and a 35% reduction in depression. This happiness boost and depression decrease was maintained at one week and one month follow-up assessments. Similarly, those who participated in the three good things intervention experienced a 2% happiness increase after a week, and their happiness continued to grow over time, by almost 10% at a six month follow-up. These participants also experienced approx. a 30% diminishing of depressive symptoms within a week.
Gratitude & Seniors
Killen & Macaskill (2014) examined the impact of gratitude exercises on 88 older adults, ages 60–91. Each evening for two weeks, participants documented three good things that occurred during the day and why they saw them as positive. The intervention was effective in decreasing stress over a two-week period and increasing flourishing, defined as goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005), which was maintained at a 45-day follow-up.
These are just a few sample studies that demonstrate the link between gratitude practices and their numerous personal and interpersonal benefits. However, I always like to hear these connections through the stories of those who are personally practicing gratitude in their daily lives, and/or helping others live with enhanced gratitude. I had the great fortune of interviewing individuals from across the country, and globe, about their advice and experiences with gratitude. I would like to share their wisdom.
Stories & Advice on Gratitude in Practice Across the World
Anuradha Kowtha – United Kingdom – www.ManifestByDesign.com
Anuradha Kowtha is CEO/Transformation Consultant at Manifest By Design, where she partners with CEOs, professionals, and their teams to strategically align their resources and guide them in creating lives and work with meaning and impact.
Anuradha shared that a few years ago, she found herself dreading going to work, exhausted, and unhappy. She highlighted that “shifting from a lack mentality to one of possibility and gratitude literally saved my life. Now, I am waking up happy, and manifested a life, family, and career that brings on-going joy by adding an element of radical gratitude.” Anuradha often encourages her clients to list their daily gratitudes before they go to sleep. She shared that this practice “not only helps manifest more positive things during sleep, but also rewires the brain to notice more things worth being grateful for. We get hundreds of pieces of data in but in an effort to streamline our experience, our brain selects the data that are aligned with our belief system. By changing our beliefs, we actually begin to rewire the brains neural networks.”
Lisa Cox – Australia – http://Lisa-Cox.com
Lisa Cox is a speaker and mentor who shares with others her story of overcoming tremendous health obstacles in order to facilitate gratitude, perspective, diversity, and acceptance. Lisa is also author of Does My Bum Look Big in this Ad?, which promotes positive body image.
Lisa shared that people don’t need to have an abundance of riches or other stereotypical benchmarks of success to be grateful in their daily lives. In discussing her experience being hospitalized after a brain hemorrhage, Lisa said, “Most people are grateful for the more obvious things, like family, friends, income, home, and food. But with so little of those things in hospital, I had to be resourceful and get creative with my gratitude! During the summer months, for example, I was extremely grateful for air conditioning in the hospital. I jokingly bragged to overheated visitors about how lucky I was to be in hospital at this time of year. “
Wali Collins – New York – www.YNEVANO.com
Wali Collins is a comedian and author whose television stand-up credits include HBO, ABC's "The View", Comedy Central's "Tough Crowd", and Commentary on VH1. Wali was the first African American to have his own show on Comedy Central and was a featured performer on the "Late Show with David Letterman." He is also author of The Y'NEVANO Book of ENCOURAGEMENTS.
Wali defines practicing gratitude as taking inventory. He shared, “In order to get more from what you have in life you have to appreciate what you have already. Some may say, ‘I have nothing in my life to be happy about’ and I say, ‘Really? First let us start with the simple stuff or the things you take for granted, like the breath in your lungs or the ability to read this. And then there are the clothes you are wearing. Next, move up to the friends and family, those people who came to your aid when you needed it. Now that I have gotten you to start itemizing the stock in your life, you can probably think of a few more things you can be happy about.’ Take the time to act and take inventory of all the gifts in your life. Y’NEVANO (you never know) your inventory list can be endless.“ Wali lives by the philosophy that Y’NEVANO, a belief passed down from his mother who encouraged him to pursue his dreams.
Chris Attwood – Iowa – www.ThePassionTest.com
Chris Attwood is co-author of the New York Times bestsellers, The Passion Test – The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Life Purpose and Your Hidden Riches. He is a leader in the transformational industry, having coordinated some key strategic alliances, including arranging the majority of the interviews for the movie, The Secret.
Chris shared that “what you put your attention on grows stronger in your life.” He discussed that rituals have the ability to make things real, such as the rituals of a wedding, graduation, or an inauguration. Chris pointed out that “by incorporating gratitude rituals that have personal meaning for you, you give your attention to the good in your life. As a result, you see more and more good showing up. Make your gratitude rituals fun and you’ll be more likely to maintain them. Before each meal, my wife, my three children and I sing the Johnny Appleseed song of gratitude. It’s happy, easy to remember, and at the end we all clap and ring a tambourine. Our meals always begin on a happy note as a result.”
Erika Oliver – North Carolina – www.ErikaOliver.com
Erika Oliver is a Positive Approach Coach at Positive Approach, LLC, where she builds positive and productive people, teams, and organizations. She is author of Happy Crap: The Power of Positive Assumptions, Three Good Things: Happiness Every Day, No Matter What!, and Three Good Things: A Coloring Book for Everyone!.
Erika describes herself as a recovering pessimist. She has found such transformation in gratitude practices that she has written books about practicing three good things. Erika shared, “Regarding gratitude – my husband, family, and friends practice sharing three good things about our day no matter what the day has brought. This practice saved my marriage, helped me learn to parent, helped me develop long-term friendships, and led to my current work.”
Hamilton Powell – Georgia – www.CrownAndCaliber.com
Hamilton Powell is CEO of Crown & Caliber, an exclusive online store that sells high-end, luxury watches.
Hamilton shared that he believes practicing gratitude helps to keep things in perspective, and feels it is important to use our own blessings to do good for others. In talking about his avid volunteer work he stated, “Giving back and volunteering with either time or money has a great impact on both the giver and the recipient. The inhabitants at the shelter I frequent certainly appreciate the time I spend there and I leave feeling grateful for the time I was able to spend with them and always look forward to my next visit. When I first started volunteering at the shelter, I went in with the sole intention of helping out these people in need, not really expecting to receive anything in return. However, in return, I have become more grateful, not for the things I possess, but for the things in life that truly matter, like friends and family.”
Dr. Jeanette Raymond – California – http://LosAngelesWestsideTherapy.com
Dr. Jeanette Raymond is a Licensed Psychologist in private practice and author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don't!.
Jeanette discussed how she used to acquire her feelings of well-being from trying to impress others with her goodness and conscientiousness, until that no longer worked and simply led to anxiety. She shared, “Slowly I tuned into my immediate surroundings and what gifts there were around me that I hadn't even asked for. Each day I am grateful for my car starting, the sunshine, a new bloom on a plant, or absence of Sciatica for one day.” She believes that a benefit of gratitude practice is that “your focus is on the present moment and what is currently available without you having to work for it, or worry about the future. You are less likely to feel empty and expect others to fill you up. You are aware of what people are giving and feel cared for, rather than deprived, anxious, or threatened.” Jeanette’s advice is to “tune into your present surroundings and nature. Note what you have for free--a smile from a stranger, sunshine, a parking space you didn't expect, or your dog’s love.”
Justine Brooks Froelker – Missouri – http://EverUpward.org
Justine Brooks Froelker is a mental health therapist, self-care expert, and Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator in private practice. Her debut book Ever Upward: Overcoming the Lifelong Losses of Infertility to Own a Childfree Life launches April 2015.
Justine discussed how gratitude has been a critical part of her own personal journey. She believes that practicing gratitude is the antidote to many of the struggles we face in life, which she discusses in depth in her book and blog. Justine suggests keeping “a gratitude journal at night with one to three things you are grateful for from the day. My rule is that it must be something different everyday so as to help us be grateful for even the small things.”
Laura Clark – Rhode Island – www.SoulWiseLiving.com
Laura Clark is a Certified Soul Coach® who helps overwhelmed women facing life obstacles to heal from within by accessing their inner power.
Laura believes that the benefits of practicing gratitude are many. She shared, “When you really live by being grateful, you can quickly move from feelings of worry, fear, and frustration to experiencing peace-of-mind, joy, and happiness. One of my favorite ways of cultivating an attitude of gratitude is to create a Blessings Bowl. This is created by placing a beautiful bowl next to your bed, and before you go to sleep, write on pieces of beautiful parchment paper the blessings you’ve received that day and put them in your bowl. You’ll go to sleep feeling peaceful and this bowl infuses that feeling into your being while you sleep so you wake up feeling more refreshed and grateful for the day ahead!”
Martha Tassinari – Massachusetts – www.HolisticRecoverySolutions.com
Martha Tassinari is President and founder of Holistic Recovery Solutions and is a Certified Professional Holistic Coach and Healer. She inspires women to embrace challenging life transitions as a catalyst for spiritual and personal transformation so they can manifest their deepest vision of themselves and create a life of joy, passion, and purpose.
Martha believes that the benefits of regularly practicing gratitude affect us on all levels. She shared, “Physically, it helps to boost our immune system and creates better sleep. Emotionally, we feel more resilient, grounded, relaxed, and in a state of joy. Energetically, we are in a higher vibration, which attracts more positive things and people in our lives. Spiritually, we are able to cope with stress, illness, and challenging situations with much more resilience.”
Stacy Rowan – Pennsylvania – www.CustomBuiltLife.com
Stacy Rowan is a co-founder and personal coach at Custom Built Life™, where she offers private coaching programs that empower clients to stop following the rules they were told would lead to happiness, and instead design a life customized to their own goals and dreams.
Stacy discussed how as humans, we often look for the bad in a situation so we can find a solution. She mentioned that while it is good to be able to fix problems, it is not good to always be focused on what is wrong. Stacy asserted that, “Gratitude shifts your perspective of a situation. It allows you to look at the good within it and have an appreciation for it even if challenges are also present. Gratitude gives you a solid foundation in your life and makes it easier to find the courage to take risks. If you are skilled at always finding the good in life no matter what you are presented, then how bad of a risk can something be?”
Star Staubach – Kentucky – http://IgniteRadiance.com
Star Staubach is an energy transformation strategist, business coach, motivational speaker, radio show host, and busy mom of three. Star supports women entrepreneurs in leveraging the intuitive wisdom within, aligning heart desires with actions, activating results, and creating a heart-driven business.
Star shared that there is a body of research that suggests expressing gratitude is synonymous with experiencing joy. She pointed out, “Practicing gratitude elevates your mood and overall outlook on life. It creates a joy within, which is contagious to others. Your energy is measurable. Think about the difference between walking into a party vs. a funeral. We call this ‘mood,’ but indeed they are measurable energies that carry different feelings. The energy felt when practicing gratitude is measurable and transferrable.”
Stephanie Dalfonzo – Connecticut – http://YourPowerBreakthrough.com
Stephanie Dalfonzo offers Intuitive Healing for Success, working with women entrepreneurs to help them discover what they are truly meant to do and clear blocks in the road to build a path to success.
Stephanie shared that a few years ago, she began a morning ritual of considering three to five things she is grateful for. She stated, “If you are new to a gratitude practice, it may seem daunting. Simply start with whatever is easiest, like on a cold morning, ‘I am so grateful that I have a nice warm bed and a nice warm home.’ If you have children, a good job, money to pay the heating bill, running water—you get the idea! Once you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Look through the lenses of gratitude and find JOY!”
Wendy Van de Poll – New Hampshire – www.WendyVanDePoll.com
Wendy Van de Poll is an Animal Communicator, Pet Grief Support Coach, Intuitive Life Coach, and author dedicated to empowering people to learn their personal happiness code.
Wendy believes that gratitude is one of the key grounding forces for people to change the way they live life. She shared, “My own experience in learning about gratitude and why I practice it every day is that for most of my life I had no sense of myself, even disliked myself. To be honest I didn’t get what gratitude really meant until a very special dog came into my life. Marley provided me with the right balance of observation and introspection. She guided me on a path that I could not have followed on my own. I learned that gratitude was obtainable.”
Beth Shaw – California – www.YogaFit.com
Beth Shaw is President and founder of YogaFit©, Inc., the largest yoga school in the world, and is author of YogaLean and Lessons from the Mat. She is a lifelong student of fitness, psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and health, and helps her clients find their own perfect health‚ physically and mentally.
Beth discussed that she feels practicing gratitude is a critical part of being a happy and satisfied human being. In her work, Beth shared that she asks her clients to create gratitude lists. She stated, “Prior to doing that I have them write down all the things they'd like to get rid of and tear those things up and stamp on them. Then I ask them to make gratitude lists daily for 40 days so they can get in the habit of being grateful.” Beth cited a story of an incident that occurred when she was in her early 20s that propelled her regular practice of gratitude and positivity. She shared, “My boyfriend at the time had this old motorcycle and it broke down leaving us stranded. I realized in that moment I could react in a negative way or appreciate the surroundings. It was a life changer for sure.”
Bringing it All Together: 7 Exercises to Grow Your Own Gratitude
Scientific research and people’s personal stories have shown why gratitude can be so positively powerful. I want to bring it all together to share seven of my favorite exercises that we can practice to personally cultivate more gratitude, and thus experience its positive impact.
1. Keep a “3 Good Things” Gratitude Journal: Each night before you go to sleep, begin a ritual practice of writing down three good things that happened today and why you believe they happened (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). These can be simple things or big things. Further, after a while it may be enough to simply say the things you are thankful for each night out loud to yourself.
2. Write a Gratitude Letter & Deliver It: Write a gratitude letter to someone you appreciate for making a difference in your life, particularly someone whom you feel you have never properly thanked, and then ask the person if the two of you can meet (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Make sure not to tell her/him about the letter beforehand. When you meet, read the letter to the recipient. Pay attention to how reading the letter makes you feel in the moment. Spend time with the recipient afterwards talking about the effects of the letter and what she/he has done for you. Additionally, if you feel grateful for someone who has already passed on, it can also be therapeutic to write out a letter of gratitude to that person.
3. Send a “Thank You” Email: Consider the people in your professional and personal life for whom you are grateful. Make a practice of sending one brief “Thank You” email each week to someone you are thankful for, specifically citing a reason or two why you appreciate their presence in your life or workplace.
4. Send a Letter of “Thanks” to a Public Official or Professional: Express your gratitude to a public official (i.e., police, fire fighter, postal worker, public works staff member) or a professional (i.e., your dentist, doctor, child’s teacher) by sending a letter of “Thanks.” Often, these individuals who care for our community, our health, our education, and other needs do not get properly thanked for the great work they do.
5. Keep a Gratitude Jar: Find and decorate a jar and label it your “gratitude jar.” Place it by your bed so you see it when you wake up and go to sleep at night as a constant gratitude reminder. When you find yourself feeling thankful for something that has happened in your life, put a set amount of money in the jar, like a quarter, for each gratitude experience. When the jar is full, count the money and donate that amount to your favorite charity so your gratitude can also foster gratitude in others (Magyar-Moe, 2009).
6. Be Mindful of Your Blessings Throughout the Day: When something nice happens to you, take time in the moment to think about the person(s) who made that experience possible. When possible, thank that person right away. Further, if you are a spiritual person, take time in the moment to thank God for your blessings as they occur.
7. Practice Gratitude by Giving Back: Are you feeling grateful because you have a well-stocked refrigerator? Volunteer your time at your local food pantry or soup kitchen. Are you thankful for the home you live in? Volunteer your time at a homeless shelter or by delivering supplies to the homeless. Whatever you are grateful for in your life, consider how you can show your gratitude by giving to those who may not have the same resources.
How Grateful are You?
Take this Greater Good Science Center Quiz to find out: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/6.
There are many ways to practice gratitude and even more reasons why doing so can be transformational. Today, I find myself grateful in particular to the amazing individuals I met through this gratitude interview process—people who are out in the world working to positively impact the lives of others. And my sincere thanks again to SourceBottle and ProfNet/PRNewswire, for connecting me with wonderful interview subjects. I have more amazing stories and research to share in the final three upcoming pieces of this Gratitude Series.
Emmons, R. (2010, November 16). Why Gratitude is Good. Retrieved from: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good
Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, 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, 377-389
Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist 60 (7): 678–686.
Froh, J. J., Bono, G., Emmons, R. A., Wood, A., Henderson, K., Fan, J., & Leggio, H. (2011). An educational intervention to increase gratitude in children through changing schematic appraisals of help. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Killen, A. & Macaskill, A. (2014). Using a gratitude intervention to enhance well-being in older adults. Journal of Happiness Studies.
Magyar-Moe, J. L. (2009). Therapist’s guide to positive psychological interventions. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. P., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.