Gratitude: The key emotion

Grateful people benefit psychologically in several important areas of daily life. These include greater personal wellbeing, such as happiness, optimism and vitality, closer relations with other people; a stronger sense of connection to all life, and less concern with material possessions.
Gratitude: The key emotion

What are you most thankful for in your life? How often do you feel grateful, and how easy is it for you to express gratitude? It’s not surprising that such questions are vital to the new field of positive psychology, for gratitude has been a valued emotion in diverse cultures throughout human history. 

This is certainly true for India. For example, The Kural, a Tamil text written by a Hindu poet and philosopher more than 1200 years ago, has a section specifically focused on gratitude in daily living, and includes this couplet, “It may be possible for man to earn redemption from all other sins; But from the sin of ingratitude, none has escaped ever since” (Readings from Thirukkural by GN Das, p.32). 

How do positive psychologists define gratitude? Dr Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in this field, says that "Gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act."

The contemporary thinker Dr Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America observed, “Gratitude holds a very high place in the Hindu tradition. There are two facets to it. We must be grateful for everything that we get, but we must not expect any gratitude from others. The Hindu teaching is to give without expectation.” The world’s other great religions, too, have always emphasized thankfulness. As for the Western philosophical tradition, the ancient Greek philosopher Cicero declared, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

Yet, until recently, psychology remarkably said little about this trait. An exception was American theorist Abraham Maslow. During the mid 20th century, he became convinced based on his studies of self-actualizing (highly productive, creative, and self-fulfilled) men and women, that the abilities of both to feel and express gratitude easily are vital aspects of mental health – and those with difficulty doing so can be guided in developing such traits. Thus, he taught methods for nurturing gratitude, such as recalling the joys of one’s life and also imagining that one has only a short time left on Earth. In Maslow’s view, the ancient adage to 'count your blessings' remains highly relevant. 

Among the world's leading researchers of gratitude today is Dr Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis. He and his colleagues have found that grateful people benefit psychologically in several important areas of daily life. These include greater personal wellbeing, such as happiness, optimism and vitality, closer relations with other people; a stronger sense of connection to all life, and less concern with material possessions. In this regard, gratitude minimizes feelings of envy.

What about romantic relationships such as marriage? A solidly increasing body of research shows that couples with high mutual gratitude have less conflict than others. Certainly this finding makes sense: if you have a strong, positive emotion like gratitude toward a key person in your life, there’s less space for negativity like anger or disappointment. In an influential study, Dr Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her colleagues found that gratitude toward one’s romantic partner acts as a 'booster shot' for the relationship; that is, simple everyday acts that trigger this feeling can bolster romance powerfully. Not surprisingly, therefore, marriage and family experts increasingly advise the practice of expressing daily gratitude to one’s loved ones to strengthen bonds. The long-term advantages of such a practice are far stronger than those reaped from a fancy or exotic vacation; in the latter situation, research shows that benefits are almost invariably short-lived.        

Dr Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have developed several methods for increasing wellbeing through gratitude. Among the most powerful is the 'gratitude visit', in which one selects a living person to whom they are grateful – such as a former teacher, friend, or older relative – then writes a letter expressing this emotion, and hand-delivers it to that individual. The 'gratitude visit' has generated reports of beautiful and intense experiences, and enhanced the initiator’s wellbeing even months afterward.                                                          

Guided Activities

The more that you can bring gratitude into your daily life, the greater likelihood of increasing your happiness and well-being. Here are five effective ways to do so: 

1) Make a gratitude list. Once a week for the next four weeks, find time to identify in writing everything in your life for which you’re grateful. Certainly your list can include family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and other people, as well as aspects of your health, livelihood, and personal skills, talents, and interests.   

2) Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before you go to sleep, write about an event of that day for which you’re grateful. It needn’t be something big and dramatic. For example, if your commute to work, or your wait in line at the post office, took less time than you expected, that’s something to be thankful about. The important thing is to write on a daily basis and thereby strengthen your 'gratitude muscles'. This practice will be more powerful if you set aside a particular time for your journaling.

3) Write a gratitude letter to a relative. If married, write it to your spouse. If single, write it to a parent or sibling. Your letter can convey broad, general feelings, but should also be specific, that is, recount at least one event within the past month. For example, “I’m thankful for the time and advice you gave me last week about the problem I was having with my boss at work.”   

4) Write a gratitude letter to a friend. Even with close friends, we sometimes get overwhelmed with our busy schedules and fail to acknowledge their importance in our life. Don’t let this happen to you. Everyone likes to be thanked for their attentiveness, companionship, and concern. Select a close friend and send a personal, handwritten letter expressing gratitude. As with activity #2, it’s best to recount a specific event .  

5) Make a vow to practice gratitude. Research shows that promising to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that it will be done. Therefore, write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as “I promise to count my blessings each day,” and post it somewhere easily visible in your home.

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at 

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