The Science of Gratitude

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Key with happiness label to signify the gratitude projectWhat do I mean when I say that I use science to ignite change? I rely extensively on scientific evidence to inform my work with clients to help them reach their goals. One of the most straightforward examples of this is gratitude. There is decades of research suggesting that a daily gratitude practice can yield positive change in people’s lives.  

Reviewing academic articles can be overwhelming, which is why I love the book The Gratitude Project edited by the Greater Good Science Center’s Jeremy Adam Smith, Kira Newman, Jason Marsh, and Dacher Keltner. The anthology reviews and summarizes the rich academic literature about why and how gratitude works. Basically, it does the hard research work for you by putting everything you need to know in one place and explaining it clearly.

Before we can talk about why gratitude works, we need to define what it means. According to The Gratitude Project,

“Researchers define appreciation as the act of acknowledging the goodness in life – in other words, seeing the positives in events, experiences, or other people (like our colleagues). That’s important, but gratitude goes a step further: it recognizes how the positive things in our liveslike a success at workare often due to forces outside of ourselves, particularly the efforts of other people.” 

Broadly, we can think of gratitude as a general appreciation for things outside our control. Of course, you can also be appreciative of the things that you’ve worked hard for, but that’s a little different. Gratitude has to do specifically with recognizing and appreciating the things that you couldn’t have changed. These could be big things like a family member mysteriously recovering from a mysterious illness, or small things like a particularly well-timed bus schedule that made your morning a little easier. 

Gratitude journal to show the gratitude projectNow that we know what gratitude is, how do we use it to our advantage? There are lots of gratitude-based techniques. One of the most popular is to keep a gratitude journal. This method came from a paper published in 2003 by Drs Emmons and McCullough. In the study, they randomly assigned people to keep journals of either hassles in their lives, things they were grateful for, or neutral things that happened that day. The gratitude group reported higher well-being after journaling compared to the hassle and neutral groups. This finding suggests that keeping a gratitude journal may help you boost your day-to-day well-being. Science reviewed in The Gratitude Project agrees with the original 2003 finding: 

“…practicing gratitude has proven to be one of the most reliable methods for increasing happiness and life satisfaction; it also boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions.” -p.39

“…gratitude seems to affect our health on three levels: how we feel on a daily basis, what’s going on in our bodies, and what kind of behaviors we engage in. Of course, these aspects of health are interdependent, and it’s too soon to tell where gratitude exerts its strongest influence. Some of these benefits may result from the health-enhancing positive emotions and relationships that gratitude nurtures, while others may be more direct. For now, the research suggests that having a grateful disposition or working on your gratitude muscles may be part of an overall healthy lifestyle.” -p.46

Notebook with Things I'm Grateful For title to show gratitude projectAll of this evidence for gratitude practices sound promising, but sometimes people worry that gratitude will backfire and make them complacent. After all, reaching the goals we set for ourselves is hard. Is it possible to become so grateful that I stop trying to make positive changes in my life? Here’s what The Gratitude Project has to say:

“…the evidence strongly suggests that gratitude doesn’t lead us to relax, stagnate, and become complacent. Instead, it often motivates us to become better people. It looks like gratitude inspires us to put forth more effort toward school, work, our communities, and our relationships, perhaps even prompting us to strive for goals we would otherwise not have thought possible.” -p.51

Overall, there is strong evidence that practicing gratitude can boost our sense of well-being while also motivating us to reach our goals. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of the science of gratitude, I can’t recommend The Gratitude Project enough. It also touches on the ways that gender, culture, and individual experiences such as our careers, relationships, and life-effects affect our use of gratitude. There’s so much to explore! And, as always, if you’re interested in working through some of these topics with a coach, you know where to find me!

Citation: Smith, J. A., Newman, K., Marsh, J., & Keltner, D. (2020). The gratitude project: How the science of thankfulness can rewire our brains for resilience, optimism, and the greater good. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.