Evidence Mounts on the Power of Gratitude

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Sometimes, it’s only when we fully comprehend how trying things can get that we’re able to genuinely appreciate even the most basic of creature comforts: a roof over our heads, enough to eat, our family and friends.

The holiday season is fast upon us. For Americans, it starts in earnest with Thanksgiving, an event that for some has become a great excuse for pigging out on tons of turkey, gravy, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. But for many, the season means much more than indulging in food, representing an annual call to remembrance for all the good fortune in our lives. For that reason, this is one of my favorite times of the year.

Science has been telling us for some time now that it’s a good idea to count our blessings more often; our parents and spiritual coaches most likely tried to tell us this, too. I’ve written about this before (“Gratitude is Good for You — Really!”), and the evidence just keeps on mounting about how gratitude positively impacts your overall health.

The University of California is perhaps at the forefront of gratitude research. Robert Emmons and his colleagues at both the Berkeley and UC-Davis campuses have devoted millions of dollars to the scientific study of human happiness. They’ve carefully examined the roles that altruism, forgiveness, mindfulness, and a host of other relational attributes, including gratitude, play in promoting our overall health and well being as well as the greater good. Some of the findings coming out of what has come to be known as “positive psychology” research have been not only surprising but also quite provocative. They suggest that many of us have long had things backward: instead of feeling grateful when we’re well and happy, to be more fully well and happy, we need to be more grateful, generally. Evidence for the soundness of this perspective just seems to keep accumulating.

Sometimes, especially when times are tough or things just don’t seem to be going our way, it’s really hard to be grateful. Emmons has some suggestions about how to cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude, especially for the things we do have (see 10 Ways to Become More Grateful), even when things don’t seem to be going all that well.

Some folks argue that those who advocate greater gratitude simply want us to ignore the bad things that happen in this world or to discount how difficult it is for some of the more disadvantaged among us to feel grateful for much. Emmons argues that we should actually keep our awareness high about the bad things that occur. Life is full of ups and downs, good and bad. Sometimes it’s only when we’ve survived a faith-shaking ordeal that we can really appreciate it when some good things finally come our way. Many survivors of the Great Depression tried to teach their children that lesson. They didn’t just want us to know how bad they had it “back in the day.” Rather, they wanted us to appreciate what we’d come to take for granted. Maybe it’s only when we fully comprehend how trying things can get that we’re able to genuinely appreciate even the most basic of creature comforts: a roof over our heads, enough to eat, our family and friends, etc. So being grateful is not about having your head in the sand about all the bad stuff that happens, it’s about finding a space in the heart for appreciating the things you do have, even the little things.

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Emmons thinks it’s a good idea to surround ourselves with various “reminders” of the good things in our lives. And because we’re multi-sensory creatures, the more kinds of reminders with which we surround ourselves — photos and other “visual” reminders, songs and audio recordings, mementos that we can touch, feel or even smell — the better for our sense of gratitude. He also suggests that journaling is a good technique to use on a daily or weekly basis to help us remain “mindful” of all the things for which we can be grateful. Taking the time to remember someone’s act of kindness toward us; a pleasant happenstance; a treasured intimate moment with a friend, lover, grandchild, etc. and to record those events for periodic future reflection can really help a person recover and maintain a sense of gratitude.

Perhaps most importantly, Emmons reminds us that gratitude is not a sentiment that automatically arises with good fortune. Cultivating a deep and abiding sense of gratitude takes practice. Sometimes, that even means “going through the motions” of expressing appreciation without our hearts being truly in it. But the often heard advice of “fake it ’til you make it” has some real applicability here. It turns out that if we act in an appreciative manner and make the effort to express our gratitude, even if we’re not feeling particularly grateful at the moment, over time, we’re likely to experience a genuine change of sentiment.

There are so many blessings in my life that it would be impossible to count them all. That doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced some really low times or dealt with some very difficult circumstances. It just means that when I think about things for a moment — really think about them, I’m one very fortunate individual. I also know how I can get when I’m feeling sorry for myself (especially when I’ve suffered a setback or disappointment), and it certainly isn’t a pleasant experience to be around me at those times. That’s why from time to time I have to make a concerted effort to get off my pity pot and practice the “positive psychology” Emmons and his colleagues advocate. My experience has attested to the validity of the research on gratitude and happiness. When I feel good, I don’t always feel grateful, but when I practice gratitude, I almost always feel better.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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