In celebration of Thanksgiving in the U.S., I’m reposting this piece, originally posted in April, 2008.
How often do you take time to reflect on the things you’re grateful for? Once a month? Once a week, at church, perhaps? Maybe you say “grace” at mealtime every day. But even prayers that do express gratefulness, such as a traditional mealtime prayer, are often expressed by rote. Growing up, my family wasn’t very religious, but when we had dinner with family or friends, we’d usually say grace. I was probably well into my teens before I understood what “blessusolordforthesethygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivefromthybounty” actually meant.
While many would agree that “counting your blessings” is a worthwhile practice, there hasn’t been much experimental research on whether gratitude really has a positive impact on our lives. Several studies have found that gratitude correlates with positive emotions such as happiness, pride, and hope, but experimental work — showing that gratitude causes these things — is scarcer.
Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough figured it would be worthwhile to explore this notion. Their method of study was both ingenious and simple: they would ask 201 students in a health psychology class to respond to a weekly questionnaire. Everyone rated their well-being, was tested on a measure of gratefulness, and reported on their physical health and level of exercise. The key to the study was a division into three groups. The first group listed five things they were grateful for each week. The second group listed five hassles or irritants from the past week. The final group simply wrote down five “events or circumstances” from the past week. This continued for ten weeks.
What sort of things did they write?
Some students said they were grateful for “waking up this morning,” or “for wonderful parents,” or “the Lord for just another day.” Hassles were things like “hard to find parking,” “messy kitchen,” or “having a horrible test in health psychology.”
As you might expect, the students in the gratefulness group scored significantly higher than the hassles group on the gratefulness measure. But they also were more positive about the upcoming week and their life as a whole. They were even healthier than both the hassles and events groups, and they reported significantly more hours of exercise (4.35) than the hassles group (3.01). On the more rigorous measure of positive affect, which assesses many different dimensions of positive emotion, there was, however, no significant difference between the groups.
Emmons and McCullough suspected the reason positive affect differences weren’t observed was that the respondents only reflected on things they were grateful for once a week. So they repeated the study on two different groups: a new batch of 166 health psychology students, and 65 adults with neuromuscular diseases. This time participants completed their questionnaires daily for 13 days (students) or 21 days (NMD patients). In both of these studies, a significant effect of positive affect was found: Just writing down the things you are grateful for each day appears to cause to improve your overall emotional outlook. In the NMD study, respondents in the gratitude group also reported getting significantly more sleep and feeling more refreshed when they woke up in the morning.
The researchers speculate that simply enumerating things you are grateful for might be a treatment for mild forms of depression. They certainly seem to have confirmed the worth of the “count your blessings” platitude, and this research may offer some insight into research showing that religious adherents tend to be happier than non-religious people. Perhaps simple gratitude is one of the keys to the success of religion.
Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (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 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527