Perhaps it’s a tradition at the Thanksgiving table to express gratitude. Each person has a turn. Actually, research supports that a year-round habit of feeling grateful boosts your well-being, and it helps you to feel happier, too.
Spokane-area college professors who study such benefits say it’s the consistent, outward-focused gratitude that’s shown in research to improve mental health. Other researchers have found links to better physical health, as well, but the expression needs to be somewhat purposeful.
“Gratitude is very strongly associated with happiness, and it seems to be that it actually causes people to be happier,” said Phil Watkins, an Eastern Washington University psychology professor who studies gratitude experiences.
He sees merit in a cycle that gratitude promotes happiness and happiness promotes gratitude, but the gratitude-to-happiness link appears to be much stronger, Watkins added. Watkins researches benefits when people spend at least a week briefly writing about three things that went well each day.
People with longer-term happiness are ones who also reflect on why they’re grateful for others and events. For some people, that includes gratitude toward God, he said. “Gratitude is an others-focused emotion,” Watkins said.
“My theory is that gratitude psychologically amplifies the good in your life. When you think about something in your life in a grateful way, it amplifies it in your awareness and how meaningful it is to you.”
Another important component of gratitude is how it affects relationships, said Monica Bartlett, associate professor and chairwoman at Gonzaga University’s Department of Psychology. She has researched gratitude benefits for nearly 18 years.
“Gratitude plays an important role in helping to build and maintain our positive relationships,” Bartlett said. “The state of our relationships is a key competent to how happy and well we perceive ourselves.”
Her research has linked grateful feelings about other people as more positively affecting the way we think about them and behave. Such gratitude can motivate us to go above and beyond, even to complete a time-consuming errand or difficult task if it benefits that other individual.
“When we’re feeling grateful, it leads us to be more likely to want to act kindly and pro-socially even when that’s costly to us,” she said. Generally, gratitude also has a far reach toward health benefits, she added.
“My own as well as others’ research has found that gratitude can decrease depression and loneliness and boost personal well-being,” Bartlett said.
“There are a few papers that have shown that gratitude is linked to people’s self-perceived physical health. People who tend to feel more grateful more frequently to more people also self-report feeling that their health is better, so there is also some physical health link to gratitude.”
A gratitude habit
Watkins and Bartlett suggest practical ways to build gratitude into life such as regularly writing about “three good things” or “count your blessings” that include why you’re grateful. “It’s where you get in habit of writing down three things that went well that day and why,” Bartlett said.
“The why is what pushes the gratitude piece because you’re recognizing that others, that God, are the reasons for some of these great things happening in your life. When you make that connection, that allows gratitude to occur.”
She believes a link to happiness is at least partly a factor because such exercises nudge us to pay attention even to small gestures.
“If you’re not engaging this exercise, you may not even remember small things like a friend brought you a cup of coffee, offered you a ride to the doctor, or your spouse sent you a note,” she said.
“You may not remember these things because you’re too focused on how stressful or tired you are. This exercise may help us to shift our focus, to notice as the day goes by, and remember that there are many positives – even though they may be small.”
Watkins agrees that gratitude exercises with reflection help retrain the brain to look for good things in life when people naturally are more prone to see the negatives. Seeking and expressing gratitude means you take time to appreciate and value good people and experiences.
“That probably enhances your happiness,” Watkins said. “We have some evidence that if you do it kind of irregularly, it doesn’t really train your thinking in a way that improves your future happiness.”
Watkins said he disagrees with what he calls pop psychology’s approach to gratitude – simply count your blessings a little bit, and you’ll be happy. That’s only half of the gratitude equation, he argues.
“It’s to make sure we’re not just experiencing gratitude in the head, that we’re also embodying gratitude, and we’re actually expressing it, too,” he said. The experience isn’t just about recalling positive memories.
“The research suggests it’s much more about being a grateful person rather than it is about just count your blessings a few times. Of course, that takes a little work to train your brain in recognizing the good in your life and the people in your life on a consistent basis.”
Watkins also suggests that people avoid writing a lengthy “why” statement that takes away from the experience. “Write just a short note, and make it meaningful. It’s also important to sit and visualize what the other person did for you or what is the event that you’re grateful for.
“This person took time to do something for me. This person values me in some way, and what they did for me is very valuable. One thing we’re finding is that process of valuing or appreciating seems to be crucial in your experience of gratitude and also looking at the goodness of the giver.”
Research also has shown the benefits of another habit – to write a letter of gratitude to another when you’re feeling grateful for them and why you feel that way. This is most effective as a written letter, not as a text, email or quick social media post.
Then consider mailing it or delivering that letter in person.
Don’t force gratitude
If people feel forced to say what they’re grateful for, it might backfire. “That undermines the beauty of the emotion,” Bartlett said. “In order to feel grateful, you recognize that other people care about you and have concern for you.
“If it’s a holiday in which people feel forced to share what they’re grateful for, then that may undercut the benefits we’re talking about here. But in as much as it’s a chance to remember and really celebrate or share why people are special to you, then that will tie right into what the science has found.”
That looks different for each person and family, she added. “One family may very much enjoy to go around the table and tell each other why they’re happy to be together; why they’re thankful. Another family may find that to be just awful and forced.”
Watkins agrees that gratitude shouldn’t be about self-focus or forced.
“Happy people tend to be other-focused, but when you’re just pursuing it for your own happiness, then it becomes a self-focused practice,” he said. “My suspicion is that’s not going to work very well for enhancing your happiness.”
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