Does "counting your blessings" really help?

In celebration of Thanksgiving in the U.S., I'm reposting this piece, originally posted in April, 2008.

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., & 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: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

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Was I rickrolled? I went to see the study saying religious people were happier, and I get a WebMD piece. No references, no study. Did I miss something? I couldn't find any data to support that hypothesis - did they move your original reference?

but experimental work -- showing that gratitude causes these things -- is scarcer

There is a good book called "The How of Happiness" that does exactly this: summarizes a research regarding what exercise cause happiness. Expressing gratitude is the first exercise in the book, and of course the paper you cited is also mentioned there (among many other).

By Pat Delancey (not verified) on 26 Nov 2009 #permalink

Badger3k... you were NOT Rickrolled.

Look at the bottom of the article -- it gives the following reference, including a link to the abstract:

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: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

By David Yelso (not verified) on 26 Nov 2009 #permalink

As a recovering-depressive atheist (no connection between those states) I have this observation - a single point, not a statistical tour-de-force :

I have, in the 3-4 years of what has been a slow but consistent recovery from sever, numbing depression, found immense value and relaxation from frankly and unabashedly appreciating the benefits of my afforts.

Concentrating only on the next achievement or opportunities for improvement can for some people become hollow (it did for me, a classical overachiever who didn't take the time to look around and enjoy/appreciate the benefits of what I had done.).

Of course, mileage will vary depending on psychology of the individual, but I can say with confidence that in my case there has been and continues to be much benefit in appreciating where I'm at (mostly due to immense personal effort, with only a little good fortune).

By single data point (not verified) on 28 Nov 2009 #permalink

Did this have any /long term/ effects though?
Listing five happy things that happened to you will probably make you happier now, but will it have any effect an hour from now, 2 weeks from now, etc?

By singleton (not verified) on 30 Nov 2009 #permalink

@singleton -- well, you have a partial answer in the first study, which found that the affect effect didn't last for a week. still, it seems a good argument for "counting your blessings" regularly...

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Carl Sagan

By madeuchre (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Madeuchre, who said anything about delusion? I'm grateful for Sagan books, for the scientific method, etc etc. I'm also grateful for the science that has discovered that just by reminding myself how fortunate I am, I can apparently stave off depression.