By Dimitra Didangelou, Psychologist – Science Journalist – Author
MSc Media Psychology, Specialization in Therapeutic Writing

Gratitude has often given rise to the interest of the scientific community. During the last few years mainly, research that proves its benefits is increasing more and more.

The general outcome of the research is that expressing gratitude can have a positive effect on the soul, the mind and the body as well. Emphasis has also been given to its social dimension, and scientists claim that when we feel grateful we tend to analyze our relationships with other people and find out if and how they have supported us.

The word “gratitude” derives from the Latin word “gratia”, which means grace, courtesy. All the derivations of this word refer to generosity, gratitude, gifts, the joy of giving and receiving or just giving generously without taking something in return (Pruyser, 1976). The object of gratitude can be a person or an actual being – for example our friends, animals, etc. or something impersonal or other non-material entities – such as God, nature, the universe, and so on (Teigen, 1997).

It has been said that gratitude is an emotion, a behavior, a moral value, a habit, a personality trait or a reaction (Emmons et al., 2003) and can be applied in the past, present and future.

According to Weiner, gratitude as an emotion is a situation that depends on the outcome, which comes from a cognitive process consisting of two steps: recognizing the positive result and recognizing that there is an external source for this result (Weiner, 1985).

Professor Robert Emmons, one of the most well-known experts regarding the issue of gratitude, claims that gratitude makes us appreciate the value of things – however little or big they are – and not take them for granted. He also believes that gratitude helps us be more active and focus on positive facts, so that the joys we get from life are multiplied. There have been numerous research in which took part thousands of people of all ages. Briefly, the basic outcome is that people who practice gratitude regularly have the following benefits:

On a physical level:

– Stronger immune system

– Less pain

– Lower blood pressure

– They exercise more and take care of their health

– They sleep more and feel more relaxed when they wake up

On psychological level:

-More positive feelings

– More awake, alive and active

-More joy and pleasure

– More optimism and happiness

On social level:

– More helpful, generous and compassionate

– More forgiving

– More extrovert

– Less isolated and lonely

Emmons reports that “we spend a lot of time being passive viewers – watching movies, computer screens, athletic events – while gratitude encourages us to participate more actively in our lives.”

What happens when we keep a gratitude journal?

There are many ways of expressing gratitude, including keeping a journal. It has been proven that when we express our gratitude in writing, the beneficial effects can be many more compared to simply writing or expressing gratitude.

In their research, Emmons and McCullough instructed young adults to keep a journal of the things they felt grateful for. Other groups have been instructed to keep a journal of things that have bothered them or why they felt superior to others. Compared to other groups, those who kept the journal increased their decisiveness, focus, enthusiasm and energy (Emmons and McCullough, 2003).

In another research, the same researchers found that adults who kept a gratitude journal even for one week only, also had some benefits. They had greater optimism, exercised more, got sick less and had less pains (Emmons et al., 2003).

Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and pioneer in the study of positive psychology, studied the effect of various psychological interventions on adults by comparing with writing assignment for early memories (Seligman et al., 2005). When the assignment of the week was to write and give personally a gratitude letter to someone they had never thanked before, the participants immediately reported a huge increase in their happiness. This effect was much greater than any other intervention, with the benefits lasting more than a month.

Expressing gratitude through actions

Be careful though: scientists point out that gratitude does not mean to believe that we are better than the others. Sometimes we feel grateful for what we have by looking at what others do not have or when we realize that they are worse than us. But this is not gratitude, it is just a comparison.

In addition, in order to have positive results from gratitude, it is necessary not only to assess the positive aspects of a situation, but we also need to take a step beyond that, to show or to express it. Therefore, we must express it through actions. Gratitude not only encourages us to become aware of the gifts we have received, but to give in return as well. For this reason, sociologist Georg Simmel called it “moral memory.”

Within this framework, it is worthwhile wondering every day what is our act of gratitude for today. Ultimately, gratitude is a life attitude and a point of view. American politician Frank Clark was right to say: “If someone is not grateful for what they have, they are not likely to be grateful for what they are going to get either.”

Journal prompts

  • Fill in the following sentence: right now i feel grateful for…
  • Make a list of everything you have and feel grateful for. You can fill it up every day with something new.
  • Make a list of the memories that make you feel grateful.
  • Choose a moment for which you feel grateful and describe it in every detail.
  • Write a letter to someone you feel grateful for. After you read it again and if you want, send it as a gift.
  • When was the last time you smiled? How can you express your gratitude for this moment?
  • How can you show your gratitude to yourself?
  • How can you show your gratitude to your body?
  • How can you show your gratitude to the people you love?
  • How can you remind the others of the value of gratitude?

 

Bibliography

Emmons, R. 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(2), 377-389.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Pruyser, P. W. (1976). The minister as diagnostician: Personal problems in pastoral perspective. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60 (5), 410-421.

Teigen, K. H. (1997). Luck, envy, and gratitude: It could have been different. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 38, 313–323.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548–573.

 

 

 

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