Gratitude has been defined by research psychologist Robert Emmons as a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life. He found that when we practice gratitude, we benefit by becoming better able to elevate our mood simply by recalling memories of being grateful.
When grateful people are asked about past events, they tend to exhibit positive recall bias—that is, their recollection casts their memories in a rosy light. Anxious and depressed individuals generally don’t live with a grateful outlook, and they tend to exhibit negative recall bias; the negative images that proliferate in their minds compound their anxiety and depression.
Dr. Emmons and fellow researcher Dr. Michael McCullough demonstrated that the effects of practicing gratitude are dose-dependent—the more one practices, the better the results. This is not unexpected; it’s likely that any health-inducing, skill-building practice provides benefits in proportion to the amount of time and commitment to practice.
According to happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has performed rigorous studies on the nature of happiness, the single most important skill-building practice to increase happiness is to express gratitude. She found in her studies that the healthiest and happiest people were comfortable expressing their appreciation for all they had. People who were consistently grateful were not only happier; they were also more hopeful and more energetic than other people. They reported experiencing more frequent positive emotions. She also found gratitude to be an antidote to unpleasant emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression.
Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research led her to identify a list of eight specific ways in which gratitude increases happiness.
1. Grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences.
2. Expressing gratitude bolsters self-worth and self-esteem. It encourages us to consider what we value about our present life.
3. Gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma. It is an adaptive coping method by which we positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences. In those who are regularly grateful, traumatic memories are actually less likely to surface and are less intense when they do surface.
4. Grateful people are more likely to help others because they are more aware of the kind and caring acts of others and feel compelled to reciprocate.
5. Gratitude helps build social bonds, strengthening existing relationships and nurturing new ones. When we feel gratitude toward others, even if we never express it, we experience closer relationships with them. Also, grateful people are seen as being easier to be with than less positive people, and therefore are more likely to win friends.
6. Gratitude reduces comparisons with others, so we experience less envy and jealousy.
7. The practice of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions. We feel less fear, anger, and defensiveness during times when we are feeling thankful than at other times.
8. Gratitude prevents us from taking the pleasant things in our lives for granted.