Quantifying Gratitude's Impact: What the Research Says

By Dr. Jami Wilder

For some time now, social scientists and psychologists have been exploring the ways in which positive experiences, emotions, and mindsets impact our overall well-being and mental health. Researchers have run concepts such at connection to other, mindfulness, resilience, and happiness through the gauntlet of scientific rigor to help explain how and why they impact our lives.

So what does the research tell us about gratitude (the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness)?

We know from the research that feeling grateful has a number of benefits. Feelings of gratitude have been linked with less frequent negative emotions. Additionally, feelings of gratitude have been tied to more frequent positive emotions like feeling energized and enthusiastic (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002). Results highlight that people who are generally grateful tend to report being more agreeable and less narcissistic when compared with less grateful counterparts. People who are more grateful also report feeling happier (Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts, 2003). Pleasant physical sensations have been tied to gratitude as well. Researchers have found that people experienced calming muscle relaxation when remembering situations in which they felt grateful (Algoe and Haidt, 2009).

Our relationships and connections to others also benefit from grateful mindsets. Feelings of gratitude are associated with increased feelings of closeness and the pull to build or strengthen relationships (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). When we act in gratitude toward others, we often take notice of and admire their good characteristics, which inspires us to want to become closer to them. In the research, this seems to improve overall mood of participants.

A study of 700 students ages 10-14 led by Giacomo Bono, PhD, psychology professor at California State University showed that after four years of tracking, the teens found with the most gratitude: 

  • Gained 15 percent more of a sense of meaning in their life; 
  • Became 15 percent more satisfied with their life overall (at home, at school, with their neighborhood, with their friends and with themselves);  

  • Became 17 percent more happy and more hopeful about their lives;  

  • Experienced a 13 percent drop in negative emotions and a 15 percent drop in depressive symptoms. 

As the research continues to grow, it also continues to highlight the importance of cultivating gratitude in our daily lives. This is not always an easy task, particularly for many who have endured hardships and trauma. While challenging, exercising gratitude is a skill that can be developed like any other. Keep connected to Life in Balance all month long to learn ways to cultivate gratitude in your life.

Jami Wilder, Psy.D., is co-owner of Wilder Therapy and Wellness, located in Cranston, RI.

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