Gratitude, Thankfulness or Appreciation

The world would be a happier place if we all expressed our gratitude.

GratitudeThankfulness, or Appreciation is a positive emotion or attitude in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received or will receive. I’d like to write today about the feeling of gratitude, thankfulness and appreciation, and more specifically to focus primarily on the attitude surrounding expressions of these feelings.

Gratitude is an emotion that occurs after people receive help, depending on how they interpret the situation. Specifically, gratitude is experienced if people perceive the help they receive as (a) valuable to them, (b) costly to their benefactor, and (c) given by the benefactor with benevolent intentions (rather than ulterior motives). When faced with identical situations where they have been given help, different people view the situation very differently in terms of value, cost, and benevolent intentions, and this explains why people feel differing levels of gratitude after they have been helped. People who generally experience more gratitude in life habitually interpret help as more costly, more beneficial, and more beneficially intended; and this habitual bias explains why some people feel more gratitude than others.

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 motivates the recipient of the aid to avoid the person who has helped them, whereas gratitude motivates the recipient to seek out their benefactor and to improve their relationship with them.

A large body of recent work has suggested that people who are more grateful have higher levels of well-being. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. 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, reinterpreted and grow from the experience, 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. In one study concerning gratitude, participants were randomly assigned to one of six therapeutic intervention conditions designed to improve the participant’s overall quality of life (Seligman et. all., 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 caused by 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).

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”, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism, and 30 of the most commonly studied personality traits.

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 gracious people are more likely to sacrifice individual gains for communal profit.

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 wellbeing, 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.

So what are you doing to bring about those feelings of gratitude. Are you reaching out to those people that have given of themselves to you. Are you telling people that you appreciate them for what they are, who they are, and how they affect or affected your life in general. Or perhaps when you meet a stranger who is particularly kind or helpful, let them know at that moment how their behavior has impressed you. You could just make their day, it’ll also make you feel better just for doing so. By expressing gratitude at every opportunity, you’re not only improving your own well-being but you’re in enhancing the well-being of others at the same time. Expressing gratitude at every opportunity should be regular practice that we all do at every opportunity. You’ll feel better for it, the world will be better for it, and perhaps many of the problems that we currently face will might melt away.

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