The world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, Robert Emmons, defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Emmons’ research found that people who are thankful in this way tend to be happier, more energetic, more optimistic, and more helpful, more sympathetic, and more forgiving. They are also less materialistic, less depressed, less anxious, and less jealous.
In one study, some participants were asked to write down five things for which they were thankful and to do so once a week for ten weeks in a row. Other groups were asked to list five problems that they had encountered in the week. The findings?
Relative to the control groups, those participants from whom expressions of gratitude were solicited tended to feel more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Even their health received a boost; they reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headache, acne, coughing, or nausea) and more time spent exercising (The How of Happiness, 91).
Sonja Lyubomirsky’s studies on patients with chronic illnesses have shown that “on the days that individuals strive to express their gratitude, they experience more positive emotions (that is, feelings like interest, excitement, joy, and pride) and are more likely to report helping someone, to feel connected with others, and even to catch more hours of quality sleep.”
Lyubomirsky’s team went on to discover eight reasons thankfulness is so directly related to happiness (pp. 92-95).
1. Grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences
“By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances.”
2. Expressing gratitude increases confidence
“When you realize how much people have done for you or how much you have accomplished, you feel more confident and efficacious.”
3. Gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma.
The ability to appreciate your life circumstances enable a person to positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences. Indeed, traumatic memories are less likely to surface–and are less intense when they do-in those who are regularly grateful. Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness, as hard as that might be, can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew.
4. The expression of gratitude encourages moral behavior.
“Grateful people are more likely to help others (e.g., you become aware of kind and caring acts and feel compelled to reciprocate) and less likely to be materialistic (e.g., you appreciate what you have and become less fixated on acquiring more stuff).”
5. Gratitude can help build social bonds
It strengthens existing relationships and nurtures new ones. “Keeping a gratitude journal, for example, can produce feelings of greater connectedness with others. Several studies have shown that people who feel gratitude toward particular individuals (even when they never directly express it) experience closer and “higher-quality” relationships with them…In addition, a grateful person is a more positive person, and positive people are better liked by others and more likely to win friends.”
6. Gratitude tends to inhibit invidious comparisons with others
“If you are genuinely thankful and appreciative for what you have (e.g., family, health, home), you are less likely to pay close attention to or envy what the Joneses have.”
7. Gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions
“It may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, bitterness, and greed…It’s hard to feel guilty or resentful or infuriated when you’re feeling grateful.”
8. Gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation
Although our capacity to adjust rapidly to any new circumstance or event helps us when the event is unpleasant, it’s a disadvantage when the event provides a positive boost. The practice of gratitude can counteract this adaptation and maintain fresh wonder and joy.
Or as someone else put it: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High” (Ps. 92:1).