John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


Experiments in Gratitude

Lately I’ve been thinking about gratitude.

On any given day, there are moments when I feel grateful for someone or something. Lately I’ve been making it a point to pay closer attention to these moments. For instance, after spending hours at the hospital, waiting, a staff member offer to get me a cup of ice water. Or I’m buying lunch and the clerk offers to pitch in a nickel and two pennies to help cover the loose change in my bill. Or I’m miles from a sick family member, and another family member offers to be my eyes and ears to help me keep track of what’s happening. I’ve made it a point to appreciate these small acts of kindness, and, if possible, express my gratitude.

Recent research by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough suggests that the positive emotional state of gratitude is linked to happiness and well being. Gratitude turns out to be linked to life satisfaction, optimistic expectations about the future, and even physical well-being (less physical complaints). Apparently the old adage of “Count your Blessings” may have had more benefits associated with it than we realized.

In the past, I suppose I thought of gratitude more in terms of the receiver. Saying “thank you” is a form of common courtesy, of being civil. But I’d not given as much thought to giver. We when say thank you, we feel good. Apparently, the act of expressing our gratitude amplifies positive experience.

In my case, once I let myself notice those times when I felt grateful, I was initially surprised by the frequency with which they occurred. Every day I found something I was grateful for, and at first I was struck by how often I took this emotional state for granted. Usually it was connected to an act of kindness displayed by another person, and usually these were acts that I could acknowledge in the moment. Afterwards, by attending to the experience, I realized these experiences really did make me feel good.

If gratitude is one of the consistent ways we have of feeling happier (and healthier), it may very well be worth our time to learn how to cultivate it. I found it helpful just to pay attention to the small acts of kindness that came my way. But Martin Seligman has developed a technique he calls the “gratitude letter.” This involves identifying someone you truly feel grateful towards, writing them a letter (a thoughtful letter, which often takes weeks to craft), laminating the letter, and then presenting the letter as a gift, in person, where it can be read aloud. Seligman claims that this has turned out to be one of the more popular exercises he’s created for his positive psychology class. The really interesting part is, the gratitude letter boosts the giver’s mood, but unlike some many other things we do to make ourselves feel better, this one tends to last.