The Art And Science Of Gratitude
Gratitude – we know what it means and we’ve heard it’s a great practice to incorporate into our daily lives, yet most of us don’t apply it on a regular basis because we don’t recognize the true power of this concept.
Gratitude can improve general well-being, increase resilience, strengthen social relationships, and reduce stress and depression.
When we practice gratitude, we sleep better, report more satisfaction with our lives, and experience a general sense of overall well-being.
So if gratitude is so powerful, why don’t we practice it more often? Sometimes people mistakenly believe gratitude is the same as looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, a Pollyanna attitude, if you will.
But gratitude is not about being blindly optimistic. Gratitude involves noticing the goodness in the world even amidst the hardships of life. It’s about remembering the fact that not everything in our lives is bad, dreadful, and disappointing.
Gratitude makes sure that we don’t lose sight of the good around us. But there is more to it than that.
When you express feelings of gratitude for someone or something, you do more than make yourself and the other person feel good. You also create fundamental and positive changes in your brain.
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a prominent positive psychology researcher and the author of several books on happiness. She believes that gratitude is a meta-strategy for health and wellbeing. In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, she writes: “Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present-oriented.”
Her research recommends gratitude as both a pathway to experiencing more positive emotions as well as a motivator for self-improvement.
One of the leading researchers in the field of gratitude, Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories.
When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with positivity lasting for a month.
Think about that – not only did they enjoy the actual process of expressing gratitude in the moment but they continued to reap the benefits for days and weeks afterwards.
While it’s difficult to scientifically prove cause and effect, most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.
We humans are astoundingly adaptive creatures, and we will adapt even to the good things. When we do, the subjective value of that “thing” starts to drop; we start to take them/it for granted. That’s the point at which we might give them up for a while to boost our gratitude.
Example: if you’ve ever dieted and deprived yourself of something you love—be it chocolate, potato chips, or even something like the time of day you eat—you will know how much you savor those things when you allow them back into your life.
And this isn’t just about appreciating things like a beautiful sunset, a hot dinner on a cold night, or the feeling of freshly washed bed sheets. This applies to the people in your life as well.
Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center. She is the leading expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other “pro-social” skills. She shares her insights on gratitude:
Experiences that heighten meaningful connections with others—like noticing how another person has helped you, acknowledging the effort it took, and savoring how you benefited from it—engage biological systems for trust and affection, alongside circuits for pleasure and reward. This provides a synergistic and enduring boost to the positive experience. Saying ‘thank you’ to a person, your brain registers that something good has happened and that you are more richly enmeshed in a meaningful social community.
When I see couples for therapy, I have them get very specific about what they are grateful for in their relationship. For example, rather than, “They are a kind person” I encourage them to be very detailed and specific – “They are a kind person because they warm up my car on cold winter mornings” or “They remember the exact kind of cereal I love.” Gratitude thrives on specificity!
The challenge for us is this: finding gratitude even in the bad things. It’s easy to feel grateful in life when things are going well. No one ‘feels’ grateful when they are sick or struggling to pay the bills or stuck in a traffic jam.
In such moments, gratitude becomes a critical cognitive process—a way of thinking about the world that can help us turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones. For example, we can be thankful we aren’t the one in the automobile accident that has caused the traffic jam.
If we’re willing and able to look, we can find a reason to feel grateful.