What exactly is gratitude?
In many places one would be surprised by this question. Gratitude is not a technical term, but something everyone is familiar with – so why go into more detail about its definition? Gratitude is often associated with the gesture of saying “thank you”, thus showing gratitude, and is appreciated as a form of positive interpersonal interaction.
But that is not all that is behind the concept of gratitude. Scientists have already examined it in numerous studies and looked at the effects it can have on people and their environment.
Within the research community, gratitude was originally defined as an emotion that occurs when people receive support that is perceived as costly, valuable, and altruistic.1, 2 However, this definition is not sufficient to cover the full spectrum of gratitude. According to this view, gratitude always refers to another person, the benefactor, who has done something good for you. However, gratitude also occurs in much more abstract situations – people can feel it, for example, because they are allowed to wake up in the morning, because they are surrounded by their loved ones, or because they appreciate the small pleasures of their everyday life. Gratitude does not therefore have to relate specifically to another person
So it’s more than just saying “thank you” to someone.
Being grateful vs. being a grateful person
Psychologists define gratitude as both an emotion and a personality trait.3 In professional circles, the terms “state” and “trait” are used, in this case “state gratitude” and “trait gratitude”. State Gratitude means that gratitude is perceived as an emotion at a specific moment; in other words, it means that someone feels grateful precisely in response to a situation. Trait Gratitude, on the other hand, describes the characteristic and personal tendency to be receptive to the feeling of gratitude. It can be concluded that people who have high trait gratitude feel grateful more often and more easily.3
Imagine a grateful person
How would you describe it?
In several studies, scientists have also asked themselves this question, which they have answered with some interesting research findings. Grateful people are statistically rather socially acceptable, emotionally stable, self-confident but not narcissistically and not materialistically.4, 5, 6
Furthermore, it has been found that gratitude is related to spirituality. Scientifically, this does not mean that grateful people are necessarily spiritual. However, it does suggest that statistically speaking, spiritual people are often but not necessarily grateful and vice versa.3
The strength of gratitude
In a meta-analysis, in which many different studies on the topic of gratitude were looked at together, a number of characteristics were identified that are positively related to the characteristic of high gratitude. Gratitude correlates with emotional stability and positive social relationships.1, 3 Stable relationships with other people are extremely important for all of us – not least because they have the greatest predictive power of predicting whether someone is happy or not.7
In general, a connection between gratitude and a tendency to be happier has been observed.4, 6 Also, statistically speaking, grateful people tend to be less angry, hostile, envious, materialistic, depressed, and emotionally unstable.1, 4 In addition, they are more likely to feel positive emotions than those who are less grateful.1, 3 Gratitude seems to be like a kind of positive vicious circle: grateful people tend to be more satisfied, more satisfied people tend to be more grateful.8
However, the research findings explained so far are merely correlations – one can therefore only say that there are certain tendencies of grateful people, but not that gratitude leads directly to the advantages already described.
Experimental studies are required to make an “X leads to Y”-like statement. Fortunately, these are exactly the kind of studies that have been conducted on the topic of gratitude: In them it was found that gratitude leads to an improved state of mind.6 In addition, researchers found in their study that a simple gratitude exercise leads to an improved state of well-being.9 It was also found in one experiment that increased gratitude leads to more interpersonal trust.10
In the field of mental health there are also interesting results. Gratitude is associated with a lower risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs, as well as depression, generalized anxiety disorder or phobia.1 People suffering from trauma squeal can reduce their symptoms and develop more adaptive coping strategies by adopting a grateful attitude.11
After the psychological one, physical health is also an important aspect that is influenced by gratitude. The latter has been shown to reduce stress levels over time.12 Stress, in turn, is related to a number of health problems, so it can be assumed that Gratitude has an indirect positive effect on general health through its positive effects on the experience of stress.1
Another study found that gratitude is associated with a good quality of sleep, optimal sleep duration, and better functioning in the waking state through sufficient sleep.13 This is because Gratitude influences the circumstances before falling asleep. Negative thoughts before going to bed often lead to impaired sleep, whereas good thoughts lead to better quantity and quality of sleep.14 Grateful people experience less sleep-promoting but more sleep-promoting cognitions, which is one of the reasons for their improved sleep. This too ultimately has desirable health effects.
All in all, we can hold on to one thing: Gratitude is an all-round package that has a positive influence on physical, psychological and subjective well-being.
But this raises a burning question: can one change one’s own tendency to feel gratitude? Can one therefore become more grateful?
So far we have written a lot about the positive influences of a high tendency to be grateful. This may be all well and good, but with this article we want to offer you more than a few interesting facts about this topic. To be precise, we want to give you three strategies from research to increase your gratitude in everyday life.
The first method we present is called “List your Blessings” – a list or gratitude diary in which you regularly write down what you feel thankful for.6 The important thing here is that you actually feel the gratitude and not that you only list things for which you should be grateful. The point of this method is to identify which small or large events of everyday life make you feel happy.
Finally, we would like to talk about a method that has proven to be very effective16. This is about writing a thankful letter and actually delivering it to the recipient. The addressee should be someone who has done something good for you, although you may feel that you have not thanked him or her enough. What is special about this strategy is that it is not just a mental examination of one’s own grateful experiences, but actual behavior. In the study in question, a large increase in the happiness of the test persons was recorded. Without repeating the exercise, however, as expected, no long-term effects beyond two months were observed – so showing gratitude once seems insufficient to become a more grateful person in the long run. Temporarily, however, this strategy is very effective, as already explained.
In general, of course, there is also the question of how often one should do such a Gratitude exercise. Some researchers have looked into this in relation to strategy one (List your Blessings) and interestingly enough have found that less is sometimes more: those who did the exercise once a week reported a greater increase in life satisfaction than those who did it three times a week.17 So there is no need to change your whole routine – our recommendation: once a week, review the positive situations and grateful feelings of the last seven days and record this in writing.
The role of meditation
One can imagine meditation and gratitude like two siblings walking hand in hand.
Not all things for which we are grateful are great events in our lives. Perhaps today we appreciate the twittering of birds, which reminds us of the diversity of our world. But when we are already in our thoughts at the next appointment, the next duty, the next task, then we find it difficult to perceive such small treasures. Mindfulness trains us to be in the present moment, this is what helps us to be grateful. Through a more conscious perception of the current event, it is easier to identify situations for which one feels gratitude.
But mindfulness can also go beyond the benefits of gratitude. The latter can help us to perceive the good things in our lives and feel positive emotions. However, in the course of human existence we will be confronted with bad days, negative thoughts and unpleasant feelings again and again. Gratitude cannot save us from such experiences, but through a more mindful attitude we can also learn to accept our unpleasant thoughts and feelings. To be aware of and accept these is a powerful ability; for if we neither condemn nor repress bad things, they usually go away by themselves.
Where gratitude ends, mindfulness can begin – and thus enable the greatest gain in well-being.18 (You can find out more about what mindfulness is and can do here).
Last but not least, there are also forms of meditation that deal specifically with the subject of gratitude. It is also possible at any time to take a gratitude excursion in one’s own meditation. After the attention is focused on physical sensations or the breath, for example, one can direct it towards gratitude: for what and for whom do I feel gratitude?
It is therefore quite possible, in addition to the other effects of this practice, to become more grateful through meditation.19, 20
Gratitude at a glance – this article as a short summary
. Gratitude occurs as an emotion (state) and as a personality trait (feature).
. Gratitude enriches life on various physical, psychological, subjective and interpersonal dimensions.
. Three effective strategies for increasing one’s gratitude are the “List your Blessings” exercise, re-experiencing beautiful situations mentally, and writing and delivering a grateful letter.
. Mindfulness and gratitude go hand in hand: Mindfulness supports the enabling of grateful sensations and starts where gratitude stops.
. Meditation can increase your own gratitude.
Gratitude is an immense topic, which we think should be propagated more often in society. If you are interested in getting more input on this topic, we would like to invite you to our Mindful Thanksgiving Event.
The proceeds of the event will be donated to the association “eXperience gemeinsam gegen Traumata”, which helps traumatized people – because we all want to be attentive and grateful together!
In addition, there are of course other offers for private individuals at Mindfulife.
Thanks a lot 😉 for reading and until the next article.
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2: Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Stewart, N., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). A social–cognitive model of trait and state levels of gratitude. Emotion, 8, 281–290.
3: Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (2011). Handbook of positive psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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5: McLeod, L., Maleki, L., Elster, B., & Watkins, P. (2005). Does narcissism inhibit gratitude? Presentation on the 85th Annual Convention of the Western Psychological Associatin, Portalt, OR.
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10: Dunn, J. R., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2002). Feeling, Believing, and Trusting: The Influence of Emotion on Trust. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e617892011-029
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12: Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854–871. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003
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14: Nelson, J., & Harvey, A. G. (2003). An exploration of pre-sleep cognitive activity in insomnia: Imagery and verbal thought. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42(3), 271–288. doi: 10.1348/01446650360703384
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18: Rahal, L. (2018). How Gratitude and Mindfulness Go Hand in Hand. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-gratitude-and-mindfulness-go-hand-in-hand/
19: Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E. R., & Santerre, C. (2002). Meditation and positive psychology. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 632–645). London, UK: Oxford University Press.
20: Rao, N., & Kemper, K. J. (2016). Online Training in Specific Meditation Practices Improves Gratitude, Well-Being, Self-Compassion, and Confidence in Providing Compassionate Care Among Health Professionals. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 22(2), 237–241. doi: 10.1177/2156587216642102