Science of Gratitude

Science of Gratitude

In the past two decades, a growing body of evidence in the field of social science has found that gratitude has measurable benefits for just about every area of our lives. Gratitude appears to contribute substantially to individual well-being and physical health. So much so that the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley—a leader in research on the science of social and emotional well-being—describes gratitude as the “social glue” key to building and nurturing strong relationships.

By understanding the science of gratitude, we can develop interventions to promote gratitude and improve the well-being of individuals and communities.

Gratitude helps us realize that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others.

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for the positive aspects of life, such as experiences, people, and things. It is a vital aspect of human life and is associated with greater well-being, social connection, and positive relationships.

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and one of the world’s leading experts on the science of gratitude, defines gratitude as having two parts.

The first is an affirmation of goodness: People can learn to wake up to the good around them and notice the gifts they have received. The second part of gratitude is recognizing that the source of this goodness rests outside of oneself—that we receive these gifts from other people, and sometimes from a higher power, fate, or the natural world. In other words, gratitude helps people realize that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others.

The Biology of Gratitude

The Psychology of Gratitude

Gratitude has been found to have a range of positive psychological effects, such as increasing positive emotions, enhancing well-being, and improving resilience. For example, a study of 200 adults found that those who practiced gratitude for three weeks experienced increased positive affect, life satisfaction, and hope (Seligman et al., 2005). Other studies have found that gratitude can help individuals cope with stress and trauma by increasing positive emotions and improving cognitive appraisals of situations (Wood et al., 2008). These findings suggest that practicing gratitude can have important implications for psychological health and well-being.

Gratitude is more than just a momentary good feeling. Scientists who have studied written gratitude interventions, such as gratitude letters or journals, have found benefits for an individual’s mental health and well-being. Gratitude practices also appear to help you feel more satisfied in life and can boost your self-esteem, according to peer-reviewed research.

  • In one study involving nearly 300 adults seeking counseling services at a university, one randomized group wrote a gratitude letter each week for three weeks. The gratitude group reported significantly better mental health (compared to the control group) at follow-up, 12 weeks after the last writing exercise. Another type of written gratitude practice is counting blessings, or “Three Good Things.”A study of this practice found that people who wrote down three things that had gone well in their day and identified the causes of those good things were significantly happier and less depressed, even six months after the study ended.

The Physiology of Gratitude

In addition to its psychological effects, gratitude has also been found to have important physiological benefits. For example, a study of 186 adults found that those who practiced gratitude had lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers, which are associated with a range of chronic diseases (Kyeong et al., 2017). Other studies have found that practicing gratitude can increase activity in brain regions associated with positive emotions and social cognition (Kini et al., 2016), as well as improve sleep quality (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). These findings suggest that gratitude may be an important factor in promoting physical health and well-being.

How Gratitude Works

How exactly do these practices work to improve our mental well-being?

In general, people are more cognitively aware of their “headwinds” (or barriers they face) than “tailwinds” (benefits they receive). By paying more attention to our tailwinds, studies have shown that we can accentuate feelings of happiness, optimism, and positive emotion.

  • “Strengthening your positive recall bias makes it easier to see the good things around you even when times are dark,” says Nancy Davis Kho, author of the book The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time.

  • Nancy set a lofty goal of writing 50 thank-you letters to people in her life and found that the practice improved her ability to weather some of life’s bigger challenges. At first, Nancy found it difficult to come up with a list of 50 people. After she got started on the letters, the practice naturally boosted positive emotion and she was able to extend her gratitude well beyond her family and friends. Nancy encourages those writing gratitude letters to find “the creative people whose work carries you beyond yourself, whose vision helps you clarify your own, whose talent and hard work have combined to create a body of work that brings you simple joy.”

  • In the book The Gratitude Project: How the Science of Thankfulness Can Rewire Our Brains for Resilience, Optimism, and the Greater Good, Robert Emmons writes that “practicing gratitude magnifies positive feelings more than it reduces negative feelings.” Gratitude helps you see the bigger picture and become more resilient in the face of adversity.

Physiology of Gratitude

When digging into the science of gratitude, we begin to see there are more dimensions to this emotion than meet the eye. In the scientific literature, gratitude is studied in several different ways:

  • Trait gratitude, which refers to whether people have a natu- rally grateful personality. Gratitude as a mood, which tracks daily fluctuations in gratitude.

  • Gratitude as an emotion, which describes a passing feeling of gratitude (when receiving a thank-you letter, for example).

The “practice” of gratitude and the interventions that scientists use in their studies are activities designed to boost gratitude as a mood or emotion.

  • Research published in the last decade has shown that grateful people (those who have “trait gratitude”) have fewer common health complaints, such as headaches, digestion issues, respiratory infections, runny noses, dizziness, and sleep problems. It appears that practicing gratitude could also help to alleviate those pesky health problems. In one study, a group of college students who wrote about things they were grateful for once per week for 10 weeks reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headaches, shortness of breath, sore muscles, and nausea) compared to two other control groups.

  • “Physiological changes associated with gratitude are typically a reduction in blood pressure and increase in vagal tone, which is taken as an index of increased parasympathetic influence on the peripheral nervous system,” says Dr. Emiliana Simon- Thomas, Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center. The parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that allows our body to “rest and digest”) can help you conserve energy by slowing the heart rate, stimulating digestion, and contributing to overall relaxation.

  • This soothing of the nervous system may be one mechanism by which gratitude works to calm the body. A study of heart-failure patients who were randomly assigned to either an eight-week gratitude-journaling group or a treatment-as-usual group found that patients in the gratitude group showed more parasympathetic heart-rate variability, which is a sign of better heart health.

  • Strange as it may seem, gratitude can also encourage us to fuel our bodies with nourishing foods. Research shows grateful people report better physical health because they tend to engage in healthy activities such as focusing on nutrition. “We have found that getting people to express gratitude could help them work toward healthier eating behaviors, like more fruits and vegetables and less junk food,” says Lisa Walsh, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in social/personality psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, whose graduate studies included research with Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Positive Activities and Well-Being (PAW) Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. In one of the PAW lab’s studies, high school students preselected a healthy eating goal and were asked to either write weekly gratitude letters or list their daily activities. Teens who expressed gratitude reported healthier eating behavior over time compared to those who just listed their activities. Other studies of people’s physical health outcomes have found that gratitude journaling can lead to better-quality sleep and lowered blood pressure.

The Social Effects of Gratitude

In addition to giving individual benefits, gratitude may also help to strengthen ties with friends, loved ones, and those in our wider communities.

  • Gratitude has also been found to have important social implications, such as improving relationships and promoting prosocial behavior. For example, a study of 175 couples found that expressing gratitude towards one's partner led to increased relationship satisfaction and connection (Algoe et al., 2010). Other studies have found that gratitude can promote prosocial behavior, such as helping and volunteering, by increasing empathy and social motivation (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006). These findings suggest that gratitude may be an important factor in promoting positive social interactions and relationships.

  • The find-remind-bind theory, first proposed by psychologist Sara Algoe—an associate professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—suggests that gratitude can help people identify good candidates for a new relationship (find), appreciate existing relationships (remind), and motivate people to maintain or invest in these relationships (bind). As Sara writes in a 2012 paper on her theory, “Gratitude starts inside one individual and its effects spread to a dyadic relationship and perhaps throughout a social network.”

  • “Social connection is likely key to well-being,” says Lisa Walsh. She explains that gratitude might not be an emotion that just makes people feel good; it appears to have social implications by motivating individuals to improve themselves. In an upcoming study from the PAW Laboratory at UC-Riverside, high school students who expressed gratitude had a mixed experience—they felt “elevated” (a positive emotion) and indebted. Immediately after writing their gratitude letters, the students also felt motivated to improve themselves.

  • Gratitude also plays an important role in maintaining romantic relationships, acting as a “booster shot” to remind us why our partners are valuable and worth holding onto. By practicing gratitude, couples can initiate a cycle of generosity—one partner’s gratitude inspires the other to act in a way that reaffirms their commitment. One study found that receiving a thoughtful gesture from a partner was followed by increased feelings of gratitude and indebtedness. Experiencing gratitude from these acts of kindness led both partners to feel more connected and satisfied with their relationship the next day.

  • While many studies have examined the effects of writing gratitude, all the ways we communicate—letters, conversation, and social media—are avenues for expressing gratitude. Gratitude may also open the door to healthier communication styles within a relationship. Since the practice leads to more positive perceptions of our partners, friends, or family (and likely, greater trust), we may feel more comfortable talking through disagreements. In one study, participants who expressed gratitude toward a romantic partner or close friend reported greater ease when voicing relationship concerns in the future.

  • “Gratitude has made our family closer,” says Randi Joy, a chiropractor and life coach living in Ottawa. She’s been practicing gratitude with her family for about five years. “When we talk about our gratefulness and what we’re grateful for…we have a better connection,” she says. Whether it’s a gratitude walk where they discuss what they’re grateful for, or a list of their “gratefuls” at the dinner table, Randi’s family takes every opportunity to practice together.

Practical Applications of Gratitude

Gratitude research has important practical applications for promoting personal and societal well-being. Various strategies have been developed to promote gratitude, such as gratitude journaling and gratitude letters, which have been found to have positive effects on well-being and social relationships (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman et al., 2005). Gratitude interventions have also been found to be effective in promoting positive outcomes, such as improved mental health and workplace productivity (Sansone & Sansone, 2010). These findings suggest that promoting gratitude may be an effective way to improve personal and societal well-being.

Gratitude Exercises

  • Create a gratitude calendar on which you jot down a few words specific to the good things that each day brings.

  • Write a note to someone with whom you have a difficult relationship or have experienced a rift. Thank them for the challenges he or she brings and humbly describe the lessons you’ve learned through your relationship.

  • Keep a gratitude journal by jotting down two or three things every day for which you are grateful.

  • Write a letter of gratitude to someone in your past—a teacher, colleague, boss, friend who influenced your life positively. Or, even better, pay a visit and tell him or her how you feel in person.

  • Compliment people who you don’t normally praise. (Be sincere.)

  • Look out the window, or go outside, and find something beautiful to appreciate, such as the way the sun reflects off a surface, an architectural element on a building, a leaf blowing in the wind, grains of sand at the beach, etc.

  • Text three people you love out of the blue and tell them what you appreciate about them.

Gratitude as an Essential Principle of Torah

Gratitude, or "hakarat hatov" in Hebrew, is an important concept in Torah, which is the central text of Jewish tradition. Gratitude is closely linked to the Jewish practice of giving thanks to God, which is a fundamental part of Jewish prayer and religious observance.

In the Torah, there are many examples of gratitude being expressed towards God. For example, after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they sang a song of thanksgiving to God, known as the Song of the Sea. The Torah also emphasizes the importance of thanking God for the blessings of food, shelter, and other basic necessities of life.

Gratitude is seen as an important spiritual practice in Judaism because it helps individuals to recognize and appreciate the good things in their lives, and to cultivate a sense of humility and appreciation for the blessings that they have received. Gratitude is also seen as a way of connecting with God, as it involves acknowledging the role that God plays in providing for our needs and giving us the gifts of life and abundance.

In addition to its spiritual benefits, gratitude is also seen as an important ethical principle in Torah. The Jewish tradition teaches that gratitude should be extended not only to God, but also to other human beings. This involves recognizing the contributions and kindnesses of others, and expressing gratitude for their help and support.

Overall, gratitude is an important concept in Torah because it helps individuals to cultivate a sense of appreciation for the blessings in their lives, to connect with God, and to live ethically by acknowledging the contributions of others.

1. Biblical Foundations of Gratitude

A. Commandments and Teachings

  • Expression of Thanks: The Torah frequently instructs the Israelites to express gratitude to God for His blessings and deliverance. For instance, Deuteronomy 8:10 says, "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land He has given you." This command emphasizes acknowledging and thanking God for His provision and sustenance.

  • Offering of Thanksgiving: The Torah includes specific offerings known as “Korban Todah” (thanksgiving offerings) that were brought to the Temple to express gratitude to God for deliverance from distress or for general blessings (Leviticus 7:12-15). These offerings highlight the importance of publicly acknowledging and giving thanks for divine kindness.

B. The Role of Blessings

  • Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals): The recitation of Birkat Hamazon, a prayer of thanksgiving after meals, is a Torah commandment (Deuteronomy 8:10). This practice underscores the importance of giving thanks to God for the sustenance provided and reinforces a habit of gratitude.

  • Daily Blessings: The Torah also establishes a framework for daily blessings, known as "Brachot," which are recited throughout the day to express gratitude for various aspects of life, such as the beauty of creation, the gift of health, and the experience of life itself.

2. Gratitude in Personal Conduct

A. Acknowledgment of Blessings

  • Recognition of Divine Providence: Gratitude involves recognizing that all blessings and provisions come from God. This perspective encourages humility and a sense of dependence on divine generosity. Psalm 103:2 reinforces this attitude: "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits."

  • Cultivating a Grateful Heart: The Torah teaches that gratitude is not merely a reaction to receiving but a way of life. By cultivating a grateful heart, individuals align themselves with divine will and promote a positive outlook on life. Proverbs 15:30 states, “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart; good news refreshes the bones,” emphasizing the joy and renewal that gratitude brings.

B. Ethical and Social Implications

  • Cultivating Positive Relationships: Gratitude enhances interpersonal relationships by fostering appreciation and mutual respect. The Torah's teachings on gratitude encourage individuals to recognize and acknowledge the kindness of others, thereby strengthening communal bonds and promoting a culture of respect and appreciation.

  • Responding to Kindness: The principle of gratitude extends to responding to the kindness of others with appropriate acknowledgment and reciprocity. This is reflected in various Torah laws that emphasize fair treatment and respect for those who provide assistance or support (Leviticus 19:13).

3. Gratitude in Ritual and Worship

A. Religious Observance

  • Prayer and Worship: Gratitude is central to Jewish worship and prayer. The Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah), a key component of the daily prayers, includes elements of thanksgiving to God for His blessings and the redemption of Israel. This practice reinforces the connection between gratitude and religious devotion.

  • Festivals and Holidays: Jewish festivals, such as Passover and Sukkot, include elements of thanksgiving and reflection on God's blessings. For example, during Passover, Jews recall the deliverance from Egypt with gratitude, and Sukkot is a time of thanksgiving for the harvest and God's provision.

B. Ritual Acts

  • Tzedakah (Charity): The practice of giving tzedakah is also a manifestation of gratitude. By contributing to those in need, individuals express their appreciation for their own blessings and fulfill the Torah’s call to help others. This act of giving reflects a recognition of one’s own blessings and a commitment to sharing them.

4. Theological and Ethical Dimensions

A. Divine Relationship

  • Emulating Divine Attributes: Gratitude is a way of emulating God's attributes, including His kindness and generosity. By practicing gratitude, individuals reflect divine attributes and align their behavior with spiritual ideals (Psalms 136:1).

  • Strengthening Faith: Gratitude strengthens faith by reinforcing the belief in God's ongoing care and provision. It encourages individuals to trust in divine goodness and maintain a positive relationship with God.

B. Personal Growth and Well-Being

  • Psychological Benefits: Gratitude has psychological benefits, including increased happiness and reduced stress. The Torah’s emphasis on gratitude promotes a positive mindset and contributes to overall well-being, aligning with the broader principles of joy and fulfillment in life.

  • Moral Development: Practicing gratitude fosters moral development by encouraging humility, contentment, and an appreciation for the blessings one receives. It helps individuals develop a sense of perspective and a balanced view of their place in the world.

References

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