As we swelter in the heat of the height of summer, it is easy to forget that the holiday season with all of its cozy goodness is just around the corner. Soon enough though, pumpkin spice lattes and scented candles will proliferate with a vengeance and the inescapable torrent of #blessed miscellanea reminding us to be #grateful will be blitzing their way through all of our lives. But what does it mean to be grateful, really? And for all the claims that gratitude is a gateway to a healthy, balanced life, is there sound, evidence-based science to back these claims? It’s still a relatively new area of scientific study, but evidence is mounting.
- A 23% reduction in cortisol was recorded as a result of emotional restructuring techniques used to focus on appreciation and gratitude
(McCraty, Rollin & Childre, Doc. (2002). The Appreciative Heart: The Psychophysiology of Appreciation. The Psychology of Gratitude).
- About 18.5% of the differences in people’s happiness can be predicted by the amount of gratitude they feel
(Park et al. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology as cited by Wood et al. (2007). Gratitude — Parent of all Virtues. The Psychologist).
- Practicing gratitude resulted in 30 minutes more sleep at night compared to those who did not
(Emmons and McCullough. (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).
There are many definitions of gratitude, but the key points are these: it requires yourself and some “other” between whom some exchange of a benefit and expression of gratitude is made. This “other” can be another person, higher power, or entity of some kind. Robert Emmons, one of the foremost leaders in the study of gratitude, describes it as having two necessarily inextricable parts that exist simultaneously — firstly, the recognition of the existence of goodness that we can or have experienced and, secondly, that this goodness originates outside of ourselves. In terms of what function gratitude serves, according to Glenn R. Fox et al (2015), gratitude is a pillar of social bonds. Proper practice of gratitude is believed to have evolved as a critical piece to maintaining social standing as it signals an individual’s ability to recognize, validate, and participate in unselfish exchanges. It is what has been termed “prosocial” — an incentivizing mechanism through which individuals are prompted to engage in beneficial exchanges, therefore strengthening intracommunal bonds. A key point here is that these beneficial exchanges create an effect of “upstream reciprocity” whereby beneficiaries of an act of kindness not only express gratitude to the original giver but are more likely to then “pay it forward” and be kind in turn to someone else.
This idea of what gratitude is and its effects has led many scientists to hypothesize a close relationship to moral cognition, value judgment, and theory of mind, which has been supported by activity observed in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex which have been previously linked to these concepts (Glenn R. Fox et al (2015). Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology.). A study from the National Institutes of Health identified higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus (Zahn et al (2009). as cited by Korb (2012). The Grateful Brain), a region of the brain that controls many of the most essential bodily functions such as eating, drinking, and sleeping and as such has heavy influence on metabolism and stress levels. Areas of the brain associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine were also activated, explaining the positive feelings that accompany gratitude.
Based on the findings so far, it is generally recognized that intentional practice can rework and strengthen neural pathways such that gratitude and therefore its benefits is more readily experienced (Kini, Prathik & Wong, Y Joel & McInnis, Sydney & Gabana, Nicole & Brown, Joshua. (2015). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. NeuroImage).The implications of this are profound, given that many studies have shown a positive link between gratitude and better health. Essentially, strengthening your gratitude practice can be rewarding in and of itself, but it comes with the compounding bonus of beneficial downstream effects.
Lower levels of cortisol accompanied by better cardiac function and resilience in the face of adversity have been recorded in studies where individuals intentionally cultivated appreciation and gratitude through emotional restructuring techniques, as well as increases in secretory IgA, a predominant antibody in the body’s defense against pathogens (McCraty, Rollin & Childre, Doc. (2002). The Appreciative Heart: The Psychophysiology of Appreciation. The Psychology of Gratitude). In a study focused on the effects of gratitude and sleep on depression and anxiety, gratitude was found to directly lower depression while indirectly lowering anxiety by inducing better sleep (Ng et al (2012). The differential gggeffects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain). Journaling about things that they were grateful for resulted in young adults reporting increased determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy while adults experienced greater optimism, improved exercise patterns, and the lessening of physical ailments (Emmons and McCullough (2003). as cited by Korb (2012). The Grateful Brain). The positive effects of gratitude journaling were also documented to last six months after the initial journal entry in a study of the impact of positive interventions. Subjects reported increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. Similar results were achieved in the same study when study participants wrote and delivered letters of gratitude with positive effects lasting as long as one month (Seligman, Martin & Steen, Tracy & Park, Nansook & Peterson, Christopher. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. The American psychologist.).
It would seem that gratitude begets gratitude, and to an extent yes, it does. However, it’s not as simple as just tipping that first domino and settling into an infinite, cascading waterfall of gratitude and all of its prized rewards. Gratitude must be actively cultivated. Our brains are wired to focus on the novel, with the tendency to diminish the value of the familiar. To maintain the benefits of gratitude, you must be intentional, specific, and above all, sincere. As with most things worth having, it takes practice and effort.
It would be a naïve oversimplification to characterize gratitude as wholly good — it can be abused and there are limits to its viability. In an effort to provide some objectivity and perspective, Gulliford, L., Morgan, B., Hemming, E. et al. (2019) investigate the “shadow side” of gratitude, specifically the phenomena of ingratiation. This is where individuals effectively weaponize gratitude by masquerading as selfless benefactors in order to manipulate the natural gratitude response in their targets and elicit a desired favorable response. The target may or may not become aware of these selfish or ulterior motives, but in either case, it subverts the prima facie prosocial effects of gratitude.
With regards to practicing gratitude in our own lives, care must be taken to recognize when gratitude is not the appropriate response, and perhaps might not even be what we think we’re experiencing. As discussed by Amie Gordon, “choosing gratitude” is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the many challenges we all face but can be a distraction that erodes our sense of responsibility for our circumstances and, consequently, the agency required to change them. A more nuanced problem is mistaking indebtedness for gratitude, which can cause strain in relationships as you strive to pay back rather than simply accept kindness.