The Attitude of Gratitude: Making Life Better by Saying Thanks

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‘Tis the season of giving… which ironically comes right after the season of giving thanks. I find it unfortunate that one is demonstrably longer than the other. In fact, some retailers skip over Thanksgiving all together. Perhaps this is the reason I’ve never loved Christmas the way I love Thanksgiving. (Admittedly, it may just be the food.)

According to an article from the Journal of Happiness Studies, “People who place too much emphasis on materialistic pursuits – people for whom obtaining wealth and material possessions takes priority over meaningful relationships, community involvement, and spirituality – tend to be unhappy people. In general, they are dissatisfied with their lives, they tend to experience high levels of negative emotion and low levels of positive emotion, and they are at risk for a variety of mental disorders. In contrast, grateful people – people who readily recognize the many ways that their lives are enriched by the benevolent actions of others – tend to be extraordinarily happy. They experience high levels of positive emotion, low levels of negative emotion, are generally satisfied with their lives.”

In other words, “the hedonic profiles of materialistic people and grateful people are mirror opposites.”

So before we get completely immersed in the struggle to find the right gift at the right price… um, er… I mean, before we get wrapped up in the “spirit of giving,” I’m going to spend a little more time being thankful. Lest you think I’m polishing my halo as I write this, let me explain the self-serving reasons we should practice more gratitude.

Why Be Grateful?

Improves Physical and Mental Health

According to a 2013 study, “grateful individuals experience better physical health, in part, because of their greater psychological health, propensity for healthy activities, and willingness to seek help for health concerns. Interestingly, two of these mediators (psychological health and healthy activities) provided.”

In another article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers describe two studies they conducted to explore gratitude, moods, and relationships. “In Study 1, spiritual transcendence and a variety of positive affective traits were related to higher mean levels of gratitude across 21 days. Study 2 replicated these findings and revealed that on days when people had more grateful moods than was typical for them, they also reported more frequent daily episodes of grateful emotions, more intense gratitude per episode, and more people to whom they were grateful than was typical for them. In addition, gratitude as an affective trait appeared to render participants’ grateful moods somewhat resistant to the effects of discrete emotional episodes of gratitude.”

They were able to conclude that grateful moods are created “both through top-down effects (i.e., the effects of personality and affective traits), bottom-up effects (i.e., the effects of discrete interpersonal and emotional episodes), and the interaction of these effects.” Or as Forrest Gump might say, “Grateful is as grateful does.”

The researchers go on to point out, “Although no one knows for sure where the boundary between an emotion and a mood really lies, it seems plausible from these data that discrete episodes of grateful emotions diffuse into daily mood, thereby casting a grateful affective tone over people’s daily mood experiences.”

When you put in the “work” of trying to be grateful, your body rewards you and you set off a chain reaction. You feel better, so it’s easier to be grateful, and you are more in tune with your emotions so when you do need help, you’re more likely to ask for it.

Better Sleep

Gratitude can have tangible physical benefits, including something we could all use more of–rest. In a study from the University of Manchester (maybe we’d all be more grateful after a nice afternoon tea, but I digress), “gratitude predicted greater subjective sleep quality and sleep duration, and less sleep latency and daytime dysfunction.”

This makes sense on a simple level: gratitude is calming, and feeling content is a good antidote for the distraction of an anxious mind. But it probably works the other way, too. When you are well-rested and healthy, it is easier to find joy in the little things. And the reverse is also true: trying to be positive while waiting in line at the bank is much harder when you’re running on fumes and not feeling your best. The sleep connection seems to be a virtuous cycle and well worth the positivity effort.

More Abundant Life

When you practice gratitude, your perception of your own life is more positive. In a study from Eastern Washington University, researchers found that “grateful individuals have a sense of abundance. Grateful individuals do not feel that they have been deprived in life.” Regardless of their objective circumstances, grateful people feel like they have what they need and don’t feel slighted.

The same study found that another component of being a grateful person “appears to be an appreciation of simple pleasures. Our results suggest that grateful individuals appreciate the common everyday pleasures of life.” You do not need magical things to happen to you to experience the benefits of gratitude. In fact, finding the magic in the small things (a nice cup of coffee to start your day, belly rubs with your dog, or an easy morning commute) is the key to reap benefits.

Finally, the study also found that “grateful individuals appreciate the contribution of others to their well-being.” Being grateful for the people in your life can sometimes be easier than being thankful for circumstances, especially when they are challenging. Even on a bad day, I can usually find gratitude for my family and my friends who continually support me.

Better Relationships

According to the article “It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships” in the journal Personal Relationships, “gratitude was associated with increased relationship quality for both members of the couple.”

That seems pretty obvious but researchers who wanted to demonstrate how gratitude helps in relationships found this:

“The emotion gratitude is argued to play a pivotal role in building and maintaining social relationships. Evidence is accumulating that links gratitude to increases in relationship satisfaction. Yet, there is currently little evidence for how gratitude does this. The present paper provides experimental evidence of gratitude facilitating relationship-building behaviors. Study 1 provides evidence that gratitude promotes social affiliation, leading one to choose to spend time with a benefactor. Study 2 offers further evidence of gratitude’s ability to strengthen relationships by showing that gratitude facilitates socially inclusive behaviors, preferentially towards one’s benefactor, even when those actions come at a cost to oneself.”

Also, gratitude facilitates better communication in relationships because “participants assigned to express gratitude reported higher comfort voicing concerns and more positive perception of partner than did control participants.”

So if you want to inspire your partner to be more pleasant, you can lead by example and show them some gratitude.

How To Be More Grateful

One of the things I’ve noticed about being more grateful is how this practice (for it is a practice and I’m far from perfect at it) helps bring me into the present moment. It’s very difficult to remain anxious and worried about the state of your life or the world when you have paused to appreciate and be thankful for the beauty of a flower.

However, you don’t have to just stop and smell the roses to practice gratitude, which may be difficult for those of you in harsh winter climates (yet another thing I’m grateful for, living in the south). You could:

  • Keep a notebook by your bed and write a few things you are grateful for each night or each morning.
  • Snap photos of things that you find beautiful- from a sunset, to a bird, to a plant that has decided to sprout up between a crack in the concrete.
  • Close your eyes and really taste your food, being grateful that you have enough to eat instead of plowing mindlessly through lunch at your desk.
  • Participate in those social media games that challenge you to list one thing you are grateful for every day for 30 days.
  • Trade in your news and politic filled social media outlets for Happier, an app that celebrates gratitude and fills your feed with positivity (also, there is confetti every time you post- how fun is that?).

Or as I did after I narrowly escaped a speeding ticket on my drive home from Thanksgiving break, you can simply say, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

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This article was first published in December 2016.


Kerry Gretchen is a researcher, writer, stroke survivor, and a women's health advocate. She has a master's degree in communication from Clemson University, with a research focus on blood clots and hormonal birth control. When not conducting research or writing about women's health issues, she can be found teaching at the College of Charleston.

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