Improve Your Life with Gratitude

An expanded view of gratitude

British researchers proposed a new model of gratitude. It extends the more limiting view of gratitude as a response of receiving help from others to a “habitual focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life.” Thus, gratitude is more of a trait and a general world view than simply a fleeting emotion. Studies have identified eight facets of gratitude: 1) individual differences in the experience of grateful affect, 2) appreciation of other people, 3) a focus of what a person has, 4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty, 5) behaviors that express gratitude, 6) appreciation arising from understanding that life is short, 7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and 8) positive social comparisons.

The researchers reviewed the gratitude literature and found a large body of evidence that links gratitude to many aspects of well-being. Higher gratitude predicts less psychopathology and more adaptive personality characteristics, health, positive relationships, subjective and eudaimonic well-being, and humanistically oriented functioning. Health benefits include lower stress and better sleep. Gratitude is linked to all of the Big Five personality traits (greater extroversion, openness, optimism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and lower neuroticism). Four mechanisms have been proposed to account gratitude’s positive effects: 1) a more positive life outlook, 2) better coping skills, 3) greater positive affect, and 4) effects of broadening and building positive outcomes. Happily, simple, low- or no-cost interventions designed to build gratitude, especially keeping gratitude lists, appear to be effective. Thus, becoming a more grateful person may improve your health and well-being.

Gratitude, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease

Gratitude is associated with greater well-being. But does this association extend to persons with chronic medical conditions? A longitudinal study addressed this question with respect to depression in patients with two chronic conditions: arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Patients with arthritis (N = 423) and IBD (N = 427) completed online surveys at baseline. One hundred sixty-three people with arthritis and 144 people with IBD completed the follow-up survey at six months. Variables assessed at baseline and six months included depression, gratitude, illness thoughts, perceived stress, social support, and disease-related variables.

At six months, 57 percent of the arthritis patients and 53 percent of the IBD patients had significant depression. Gratitude at baseline was associated with fewer depressive symptoms at both baseline and six months for both arthritis and IBD patients. Gratitude at baseline remained a significant and unique predictor of lower depression at six months after controlling for baseline depression, relevant demographic variables, illness thoughts, changes in illness-relevant variables, and the positive psychological construct, thriving, in both sets of patients. This longitudinal study extended the benefit of gratitude to psychological well-being of patients with chronic conditions.

Does gratitude increase with age?

Research shows that gratitude supports close relationships. One might think that gratitude (as a relatively stable trait) would increase across the life span, because older people value close relationships more that younger people, according to the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory proposed by Laura  Carstensen at Stanford. Would the relationship between gratitude and the related concept, subjective well-being, vary across the life span.

Researchers tested these ideas using cross-sectional data from three samples. Sample 1 included 1,255 participants with an average of 55 years in the Midlife in the United States Study. Sample 2 included 23,334 respondents ranging in age from 18 to 65+ years in an online survey on the authentic happiness website. Sample 3 included 7,617 participants with an average of 34 years in the International Well-being Study. Analyses of all 3 samples showed that gratitude increased significantly (but modestly) from younger to older age, with the possible exception of very old age (> 80 years). The relationship between gratitude and subjective well-being did not change significantly across the lifespan. Further studies of gratitude and subjective well-being might be a fruitful area of research, given the aging population of the US and other developed countries.

Gratitude interventions

Self-help articles and books often promote gratitude interventions as the holy grail of positive psychology. Results of a recent article temper this enthusiasm. Given that methodological differences among studies can affect their outcomes, the article conducted 56 meta-analyses with data from 38 studies to account for methodological differences, such as the type of comparison group, the specific outcome measured, and the time elapsed following the intervention. Overall, gratitude interventions produce small to medium-sized effects for certain outcomes. The outcomes that showed the largest effect sizes included well-being, life satisfaction, grateful mood, grateful disposition, and positive mood. The positive effects of gratitude interventions declined over time (weeks to months), suggesting that one-time interventions may not have long-lasting effects. Gratitude intervention effects do not seem to be larger than those reported for other types of positive psychology interventions, such as contemplating one’s best possible self. Furthermore, one type of positive psychology intervention will not be effective for every individual. The message from this article: Gratitude interventions can help improve your life, but you might not experience dramatic, long-lasting, positive results.

Can gratitude interventions promote better eating?

People who are highly grateful generally have better physical health. How might that arise? One way could be improved diet. Researchers at the University of California – Riverside conducted two gratitude studies involving either adolescents or young adults. In the first study, adolescents spent eight minutes writing in week 1 and week 2 about gratitude to others, gratitude to self, or about their week’s activities (the control group). The writing did not induce a greater state of gratitude compared to the control group, but for all groups, having higher gratitude predicted healthier eating two weeks after the first writing. In the second study, young adults spent five minutes each week for four consecutive weeks writing about gratitude to others for health, or gratitude to others for academic help, or about the benefits of becoming more organized (the control group). This time, gratitude writing induced a higher state of gratitude. This led to significantly better self-reported eating four weeks after the first writing and marginally significant better eating three months after the first writing. In the second study, better diet appeared to reflect reduced negative mood. Thus, small time investments in gratitude writing might lead to long-term improvements in diet and physical health.

Can gratitude improve academic performance?

University students who possess motivation to pursue their studies will likely do better than students who lack motivation. Would increasing students’ gratitude boost their motivation toward school? Researchers in Japan recruited 84 university students for an online experiment in which half of the students received a gratitude intervention (listing five things the students were grateful for during for two consecutive weeks plus a daily self-evaluation) on six days each week and the other half received the control condition (a daily self-evaluation). Academic motivation was measured with the Self-Determination Index. Gratitude was measured with the widely-used Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6). Both the intervention and control groups had the same level of gratitude at baseline. However, gratitude increased substantially for participants in the gratitude intervention after the first week of the intervention, increased more after the second week, and remained high 2.5 months later. Gratitude in the control group did not change much from baseline to three months. An inexpensive, online, short-term intervention increased academic motivation for university students for the better part of a semester.

Gratitude and depression

Numerous studies have investigated links between gratitude and depression. Researchers in Australia conducted a meta-analysis of 62 published and unpublished studies that included 26,427 children, adolescents, and adults. In spite of differences in study design, a significant medium-sized negative correlation between gratitude and depression emerged. Thus, people who are more grateful had lower levels of depression regardless of age, sex, or the measure of gratitude.

What to do

Higher levels of gratitude appear to promote better physical and mental health and emotional well-being. Plus, gratitude interventions may build gratitude. If you’d like to be a more grateful person, check online for gratitude interventions and try one that appeals to you.

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