Mental Health and Happiness: What's Gratitude Got to Do with It?

Posted on Fri, Dec 04, 2015 @ 01:00 PM


Gratitude and generosity might be thought of as flip sides of the same coin: someone who has learned one is likely to also practice the other. At least, we'd like to think so. However, if you were in an American shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving—known in this country as "Black Friday"—you could be forgiven for assuming otherwise. Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, although I don't suppose I would be alone in the observation that retailers have been relentlessly pushing this line ever earlier in an effort to amplify their jingle bells with a bit more cha-ching. Nevertheless, the last Friday in November is still quite an event in its own right. Shoppers queue up before opening hours—sometimes arriving straight from Thanksgiving dinner equipped with sleeping bags and cookstoves—ready to camp out as long as necessary to ensure they will be the first to grab "doorbuster" specials and score the most coveted items on their shopping list before stores have sold out. 

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving with a day associated with unapologetic—and almost imperative—greed has spawned its fair share of social media commentary. My personal favorite is this sentiment seen on a Facebook poster: "Black Friday: Because only in America people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have." 

This sentiment is too true, as far as it goes. But while these paired events may be a distinctly American phenomenon, greed, it must be observed, is not. Every nation in the world has an interest in the dividends it pays. Nevertheless, we might agree that gratitude's dividends are more beneficial to humanity, even if they may be less interesting to economists.

What are these dividends?

Taking a number of studies together, it seems gratitude may be a fundamental key to happiness. One of the more intuitive ways gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends. This is not simply because we evoke positive feelings in others when we thank them—but also because we feel pleasure ourselves when we make others feel appreciated. We also feel a higher degree of responsibility for their future welfare which encourages us to invest in strengthening the relationship further. This is a boost for us in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, of course, so the stronger our relationships, the happier we tend to be in general. But there are more specific ways gratitude puts our happiness balance in the black.

Among the many researchers who have studied the effects of gratitude are Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. In 2003, they compared three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks, each of which had a distinct commission: Some were to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. Others were told to record events that had irritated or annoyed them. A third group were given the neutral assignment to report on any events that had simply “had an impact.”

As you’ve likely guessed, the “gratitude” group reaped the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They were less likely to be ill, more likely to exercise, felt more positive emotions, slept longer and better, were more optimistic and felt more connected to others than those in the neutral or negative groups. They also were more likely to reach out to help someone else, or to offer emotional support to others. A few years after this, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher in measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who journaled about routine daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh, authors of Making Grateful Kids, have also studied gratitude extensively, focusing particularly on children and teens. In thier study presented to the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh discovered that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” As parents we can be grateful that it's never too late to help kids develop the habit of gratitude—or to develop it ourselves.

This capacity to change is especially welcome news in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that gratitude may not come as easily to men as to women.  Men seem to have been brought up to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . leaving them to experience less gratitude. This sense of obligation was especially pronounced when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

It must be acknowledged that there are sometimes more serious limitations that challenge our ability to find reasons for being grateful. In the wake of terrorist attacks, school shootings, natural disasters, interpersonal abuse and other tragedies it can seem almost an affront to those who are suffering to speak of gratitude. How easy it is to stand on the sidelines and suggest that people can be helped by looking for good in the midst of evil. And yet sometimes it's those who have suffered unspeakable evil who teach gratitude to those on the sidelines.

This is how researchers at the University of Southern California came to a greater understanding of how gratitude works in the brain. Their research, published September 30, 2015, in the journal Fronteirs In Psychologywas inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors. 

“In the midst of this awful tragedy, there were many acts of bravery and life-saving aid,” said lead author Glenn Fox, a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. “With the Holocaust, we only typically associate the awful things. But when you listen to the survivors, you also hear stories of incredible virtue, and gratitude for the help they received.”

According to USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith, Holocaust survivors said they found reasons to be grateful, "whether it was because of a stranger offering a bit of food or a neighbor providing a place to hide. These small acts of generosity helped them hold on to their humanity. That Glenn has been able to use testimonies in his incredible research on gratitude shows why it is so important to preserve the voices of people who lived through these dark times.”

This concept underlies the advice passed along by Fred Rogers, host of the long-running kids' TV show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Always look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" Certainly that is something to be grateful for. The supportive care of these "helpers" not only contributes to the immediate physical wellbeing of those they are helping, but also supports the survivors' psychological resilience—as well as that of observers—in the face of traumatic events.

Human nature being what it is, we haven't seen the last of such events. Journalistic nature being what it is, when they do occur we'll continue to see them played out over and over on platforms that intrude increasingly into the intimate spaces of our lives. With this in mind, we could do worse than to take some cues from the above research. Not only because it helps us, but because it inspires us to become "helpers" to others in times of trouble (remember the work of Emmons and McCullough).

In short? Look for things to be grateful for. If this is a tremendous effort for you, practice by journaling about the positive things in your life. We tend so easily to pick up on the negative, no matter how small its influence. Work at becoming just as adept at noticing the small positive things around youEven if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, express gratitude for these positive things directly to those around you. As Westley observes in the classic movie, Princess Bride, "If you didn't say it, you didn't do it." You might feel grateful to someone, but if you don't tell them, you've omitted the most important key that unlocks the power of this crucial emotion. The human connection part.


More from Vision:

What's Good about Greed?
Healthy Families: Silence Is Not Golden
Society and Culture: Thanks, but No Thanks?
Family and Relationships: Raising Well-Connected Kids





Tags: family relationships, health benefits of gratitude