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Gratitude may be “the ultimate positive emotion”

Friday, June 26th, 2009

This post is going to be a little more personal. Recently the number of comments on this site has been increasing, and I’ve been responding as appropriate. It’s gratifying to know that there have been more and more people discovering the site, and finding it useful and interesting. But I haven’t actually written a post since a car accident put me on the couch for almost a month. It was a bit of a shock, and it gave me more time to really think. I didn’t come to any firm conclusions, but I felt the need for more exploring. (See my article “Three strategies for being happier at work or school.”) I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Paradoxically, sometimes an unfortunate event can spark the kind of reflection that leads to gratitude, because you realize all the other things that are good about your life. I’ve written more about gratitude on this blog than any other subject so far, but that’s not because of personal taste. Researchers are learning that gratitude is of top importance in their study of the psychology of happiness.

So at the recent First World Congress on Positive Psychology, one of the participants wrote on twitter (him, me):

“Keep hearing the same thing throughout sessions and empirical studies: gratitude may be the ultimate positive emotion.”

(Also see my articles on gratitude: “Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness,” “Gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being,” and “Gratitude Visit.”)

The subject of gratitude came up for me again recently when I was giving some advice to a PhD student going off to a conference. I know her quite well, so some of my advice was tailored specifically to her, and is not what I’d say to everyone. The more relevant part was:

Although it doesn’t happen often, there is always a possibility, as you obviously know, for someone to ask a question after your presentation which is aggressively challenging to the point of being obnoxious. I know you well enough to know that you would handle such a question very well. But also, if it ever does happen, don’t let it bother you. Many of the others will see such people as unnecessarily adversarial and will tend to want to defend you emotionally in proportion to the aggressiveness, even if they don’t speak up. The person might be upset about something else or may have even had a difficult childhood. It’s possible to be compassionate under such circumstances, and even grateful for one’s own situation. (And I’ll have to remember my own advice next time I talk to a rude customer service agent!)

This got me thinking. You never know what short or long term causes might contribute to someone being obnoxious. They could be in a bad mood for a variety of reasons, but normally it would be because something happened to them that was worse than their expectations, so it’s possible to have sympathy or compassion if you consider what their situation might be. There may be a cause as remote as a defensive style they developed in childhood in response to a perceived threat, perhaps an ongoing one. Even genetic predispositions might be a factor.

Sometimes it can help to know about one of these factors. Steven Covey tells a story about being annoyed that some kids were being unruly on a train and the father wasn’t saying anything. He finally said something to the father, and the father apologized and said they are probably not quite themselves because their mother just died. Covey felt embarrassed and his annoyance immediately evaporated.

Discovering something like this, or even something much more minor, can help one to actually be grateful after such encounters, grateful for one’s own background, experience, or circumstances. Now if we could only have the presence of mind to consider this kind of thing before making assumptions and getting upset!

Gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Gratitude is something that psychologists have started studying in a scientific way recently, thousands of years after its importance was recognized by philosophers, religious thinkers, and spiritual teachers. It turns out gratitude is strongly associated with quite a few aspects of psychological and physical well-being. According to research, grateful people have more positive emotion, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, pleasant feelings, empathy, generosity, and less depression and stress. But how do psychology researchers know that’s not just because being a happy person causes gratitude? Or because having a good life causes both happiness and gratitude?

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others”


One way to find out is by doing an experiment. You get a group of people to do a “gratitude intervention” (keeping a gratitude journal or gratitude lists, or some other activity that encourages gratitude) and see how it affects other factors. Even better if you have another group as a comparison where everybody is doing some similar activity that doesn’t necessarily encourage gratitude.

Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough are two leading researchers on this topic. Here are some of their results:

In one experiment, the group of people who kept weekly gratitude journals had significantly better results on a range of psychological and physical well-being measures than the people in either of two comparison groups. The gratitude journal people exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than the other two groups (who recorded hassles in one group or neutral life events in the other).

Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal, and health-based) over a two-month period compared to participants in the other experimental groups.

In another study using daily self-guided exercises with young adults, the participants in the gratitude intervention group reported higher levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy than the other two groups (who focused on hassles, or on how they thought they were better off than others). Also, the participants in the gratitude intervention group were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to someone than those in the other two comparison groups.

In a third study, this time of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in better sleep duration and sleep quality, greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, and more optimistic ratings of one’s life, relative to a comparison group.

The most robust effect across all three studies was the impact on people’s positive moods.

All the participants were randomly assigned to groups. So the gratitude interventions led to the improvements in psychological and physical well-being, not the other way around.

Martin Seligman, father of the modern “positive psychology” movement, recommends trying out the intervention, particularly for those who score in the lower half on the McCullough & Emmons “Gratitude Survey” or Ed Diener’s “Satisfaction with Life Scale.” In his best-selling book Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes it as follows:

Set aside five free minutes each night for the next two weeks, preferably right before brushing your teeth for bed. Prepare a pad with one page for each of the next fourteen days. The first night, take the Satisfaction with Life Scale (page 63) and the General Happiness Scale (page 46) once again and score them. Then think back over the previous twenty-four hours and write down, on separate lines, up to five things in your life you are grateful or thankful for. Common examples include “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “God for giving me determination,” “wonderful parents,” “robust good health,” and “the Rolling Stones” (or some other artistic inspiration). Repeat the Life Satisfaction and General Happiness Scales on the final night, two weeks after you start, and compare your scores to the first night’s scores. If this worked for you, incorporate it into your nightly routine.

So here’s our special offer: Take our free two-week trial according to the description immediately above. If you don’t feel more alert, more enthusiastic, more determined, more attentive, more energetic, more optimistic, more happiness, and more satisfied with life; and if you’re not more helpful and supportive; we’ll give you double your money back!


Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 75. Hardcover: ISBN 0-7432-2297-0; Paperback (2004): ISBN 0-7432-2298-9.