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As a college professor who has always been fond of the science of gratitude, every late fall semester I pause my classes and give my students a free lecture on the powerful effects of gratitude.
Just for good measure, I’ll add a question or two to the exams just to make sure students pay attention. I send them off to Thanksgiving break with the homework of writing a thank you note to someone.
The scientific evidence for this is convincing.
The Greater Good institute at University of California-Berkley has helped disseminate much of this research. On their page on gratitude, researchers highlight studies on how gratitude exercises improve well-being, increases happiness and life satisfaction, and improve sleep.
A quick overview of recent empirical articles shows how grateful people are less likely to be depressed, have better self-rated physical health, and that gratitude can even improve job satisfaction – this is an especially interesting finding in the era of the Great Resignation.
During the Covid-19 pandemic of the past 20 months, completing gratitude essays improved nursing students’ perspective and stress management.
A meta-analysis published this year found modest gains in symptoms of anxiety and depression and randomized control trials (the gold standard of research methods) have shown that gratitude interventions are effective at improving well-being and gratitude positively impacts specific biomarkers related to cardiovascular health.
Other studies try to harness the power of gratitude motivation to sell luxury goods.
What all this research shows is that you should practice gratitude because it will make you live longer, sleep better, and be happier.
But isn’t it odd to see virtues being promoted for self-improvement? Has even our understanding of gratitude become individualistic and self-serving?
To be sure, the noted studies are produced by serious scientists generating replicable findings. This research contributes to the understanding of the human condition and the importance of gratitude. Gratitude interventions are accessible and stand up in any cost-benefit analysis.
But I want to be grateful not just because it will lower my blood pressure or make me happier. I want to be grateful because is the right thing to be and do. I want to be grateful because it is good for my family and will help my community.
I do not want to be grateful “by comparison.” I want to find genuine joy in my imperfect circumstances regardless of my imagination’s capability to downward compare.
This holiday season, perhaps you can consider your motivations for gratitude. Are you doing it for self-improvement? Or only finding sources of gratitude “by comparison”?
One recent study suggests that the reason gratitude is linked with well-being is because gratitude improves social support which, in turn, increases well-being. Logically, then, gratitude can be good for community.
Parents’ gratitude predicts child’s gratitude and parents who are more grateful are also more warm and supportive. So gratitude can be good for the family.
Gratitude is also closely connected with pro-social behaviors. In other words, grateful people are more likely to help others.
In marriage relationships, gratitude predicts both spouses’ relational and sexual satisfaction. Not only because being grateful changes the individual, but because, when one spouse practices gratitude, the other feels appreciated which is valuable for relational maintenance.
In a recent class, I asked students to submit a five-day gratitude journal. I was teaching about stress and I wanted students to experience the effects of a gratitude practice on personal well-being.
As expected, students had positive reactions and stories to share about their improved mood over the week. Reading their unrelated lists of daily gratitude filled me with joy and energy at a tough time in the semester.
Gratitude is good well beyond individual gain. When expressed to others, it reminds others of their value and purpose. It provides genuine joy that can be contagious in the community and sustain satisfaction in performing daily tasks.
On the flip side, the lack of gratitude also spreads easily, can corrode a close relationship, chip away at morale among colleagues, and increase the risk of burnout.
Perhaps this season, write a thank you note to someone – not because it will make you feel better, but because it is inherently good for everyone.
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Kendra Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She researches youths’ perceptions of justice and works to improve positive interventions in child and adolescent development funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.