The Science of Gratitude

by Alice Dommert

My teacher and well-known positive psychology expert  Ben Tal-Shahar says

When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.”

It is a play on words. And a good one.

I recently spend a few days writing an article about gratitude and looking at the research, studies and neuroscience. I could have spent weeks. There is now a “Science of Gratitude” and what this body is showing is that your grandmother’s advice to count your blessings when you were feeling down was solid advice. Now we have the science to prove it. This work is an outgrowth of positive psychology, a field that focuses on what is working to build resilience and the ability to flourish through a life of meaning, purpose and joy.

Projects like Expanding Gratitude, organized by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley are well underway to study the practices, impact and benefits of gratitude. This project and many others have emerged in response to the need for scientifically proven solutions for the increase in anxiety disorders, that can lead to addictions and depression.

When it comes to the benefits of practicing gratitude, at first glance, it seems too good to be true. The list includes physical, psychological and social benefits. Lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, fewer aches and pains coupled with better sleep all add up to better overall physical health. People who practice gratitude are also found to exercise more and take better care of themselves. Gratitude helps shifts the negativity bias in the brain by generating higher levels of positive emotions like optimism, happiness, joy and an increased sense of feeling alert and alive.

When you practice gratitude, your relationships also benefit. Spouses of participants in one gratitude study reported noticing a higher subjective well-being in their gratitude practicing partners. A better sense of well-being can be directly linked to a higher positive to negative ratio of interactions between these couples. This may sound like a nice-to-have, but neuroscience research shows that a ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative encounters (5:1 or greater) is necessary for a marriage to be sustainable over time.

Negative interactions are “sticky” and have a bigger impact. Opportunities for positive interactions, through appreciation and gratitude between any two people, are needed to balance out those inevitable negative encounters. Any two people, partners, parents and children or coworkers, can benefit from these investments in gratitude.

When feeling grateful, people are also more helpful, generous, forgiving and compassionate. These are all great assets at home and at work. Globoforce is an organization with a focus on bringing gratitude and appreciation to the workplace. In their work in nearly 50 countries around the world they are showing links between gratitude and improvements in productivity, loyalty, safety, absenteeism, profitability and other cost and performance metrics.

The Components of Gratitude
The formal definition of gratitude, according to Robert Emmons, Ph.D., considered the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, has two parts. First, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness, a celebration of the present. It is not saying things are perfect all of the time, or ignoring the messes, nor is it a naive form of positive thinking. It is identifying the good that is happening.

The second part of gratitude acknowledges that the source of much of the good that happens in life is because of the care and love of others; friends, family or sometimes even strangers. This is a reminder that we are all connected to others in a network of relationships. The mindset of being a victim with a focus on lack can be reframed to recognize a larger perspective of being part of a greater benevolent humanity.

What is a gratitude practice?
A gratitude practice is a habit of appreciating what you already have. It helps ground you in the present, to what is here now and creating good in your life. Here are three practices to choose from and how they work. Choose one to try for 30-90 days and then see what the impact has been for you.

A Gratitude Journal
If you like writing, this practice identifies five things that you are grateful for. Select a time each week to sit and write these in a journal. Some study participants did this exercise three times a week, however, in the study subjects this frequency did not have significantly higher benefits than those who wrote just once a week. If you prefer a more frequent rhythm, feel free to write more often.

The Best Moment of the Day
As a family or with a friend or partner, identify some daily time together and during that time share your best moment of the day, one that you are grateful for. This practice takes just a few minutes and can enhance your time together and deposit some positive experiences into the relationship bank of those who matter to you. You all also will begin, with repetition of this practice, to be primed to look for those moments in anticipation of sharing them with each other.

Writing a Gratitude Letter
Identify someone who helped you in your life in the past but whom you may not have let know their positive impact. Write a letter to express gratitude and be specific about how their actions supported you. You may, or may not choose to send the letter to this person. The benefits of this practice were the same even if the letter was not sent to the recipient. Set a frequency for writing a letter, perhaps once a week or once a month to appreciate those who have invested in you and made a difference.

Don’t see anything that feels right for you? Here are a few other gratitude practices.

Alice Dommert

Alice Dommert

Founder, Wholebeing Architect

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