Does "counting your blessings" really help?

ResearchBlogging.orgHow 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.A., 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. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

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Epicurus emphasized gratitude in his philosophy in a way that not many other thinkers have. I think it's an emotion that really is ignored. I'd be curious to see more research about it.

Why not include another group that didn't write anything down for positive, negative, or neutral?

By Ben_Wraith (not verified) on 14 Apr 2008 #permalink

This is true. Reflecting on one's blessings can actually be extraordinarily helpful and help shift one's attitude in a much more positive direction.

Ever see a homeless person, or someone paralyzed or missing a limb, or someone yelling incomprehensibly because of mental illness? Ever say to yourself, "There but for the Grace of God go I." ???? That can help.

I have been subject to bouts of severe depression, and sometimes it just helps to reflect that I have a job, a roof over my head, and I live relatively comfortably compared to most of the other people who inhabit this planet. That's got to account for something.

Is there a word missing in this sentence from the next-to-last paragraph?:

"In of these studies, a significant effect of positive affect was found: ..."

Great article. I incidentally, I just launched a website about this very idea. is a place where people come each day to log 5 happy thoughts. It has been getting very positive feedback. People do report that they are happier after finding BBH.

-John Brooks Pounders

Just thought I'd let you know that I immediately cracked up upon reading your condensed grace at the beginning of the article. We were a bit more religious at my house growing up, but I was still in my teens before I figured out what the heck we were saying. And it still seems like a contest to see who can mash the words together the most and recite the fastest.

By Paul Kelly (not verified) on 17 Apr 2008 #permalink

Thank you for the great article i am now gonna make it a daily habit to count my blessings.

I have decided to answer the usual, "How are you today?" by answering, "I'm drinking from the saucer, thanks!" (i.e. "my cup of blessing is overflowing, so now I am drinking from the saucer, thanks!" Gratefulnees DOES pay dividends!!!!

Thank you for all your reports

hmm... The How of Happiness found that expressing gratitude once a week was better than once a day. Does that conflict with this finding at all?

Hmm...I tend to agree with Jefe with regard to his comment. However,"Count your Blessings" does bring back a specific fond memory dating back to my high school years. The topic seemed easy to discuss at that particular period in my life... the article was interesting and noted...

Interesting this blog showed up along with mine with similar title as I was musing about things that made me feel blessed lately! Magical coincidence I guess. There were also a few low points in past few weeks but I focus on the blessings more to override them. Here's the blog.

I had a terrible year last year. My husband of 11 years, up and left my son and I for what seemed no apparent reason. (Another worman was eventually deterimined) On the worst day of my life, I stopped and took stock of my blessings--my son, who grieved along side of me, my parents, who held my hand, my friends who held me up when I could not step one step further. I wrote a thank you note to each. I do not know if my life began to get easier at that point, but because I chose to stay on the positive side, I am not bitter, angry, and am quite happy now. Life is good and it will only get better. I do know that counting my blessings made a difference in how I saw things and that has made all the difference.