Count your blessings: the benefits of gratitude
Studies show that people who practise gratitude are happier, more positive and less likely to feel negative emotions or show symptoms of depression
It is generally asserted, especially in the self-help field, that gratitude cultivates positive feelings. Photograph: iStock
“That’s the last favour I’ll be doing for that b*****d.”
The man on the bus had done a favour for a colleague who had angered him by taking the favour for granted. “All you want is a thank you,” his companion chimed in.
I began to wonder about gratitude as I tuned them out.
Gratitude can be defined in many ways. One I like is that it is a feeling or recognition that you have received something beneficial and that the giver wasn’t obliged to do this for you.
I had been thinking about gratitude because I decided at the start of the year to adopt a more positive approach to life. It is generally asserted, especially in the self-help field, that gratitude cultivates positive feelings.
I used to look doubtfully on this assertion but I’ve been trying it out and I find it does indeed make me feel better, at least so far.
I wonder though who it is that I am being grateful to? Can gratitude – say for a beautiful sunrise – exist in the absence of an identifiable giver? I don’t believe in God so I can’t be grateful to him/her. I believe in people but they don’t make the sun come up. The cosmos, I suppose, is responsible for sunrise but is hardly aware of a mere speck like me. Yet I feel gratitude in the sense of feeling I have received a gift I didn’t have to be given – the universe is not obliged to arrange a sunny morning for me. So, yes, you can feel gratitude for what you’ve received even in the absence of any identifiable giver.
What’s it good for though? Quite a lot, it seems.
A series of studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003 found that people benefitted from spending time deliberately reflecting on what they felt grateful for.
Benefits included a more optimistic outlook – helpful in many domains of life and, in one group, more time spent exercising. Those who practised gratitude were also more likely to help others. Engaging in the gratitude reflection every day for 15 minutes had a stronger effect than doing so once a week.
Fewer negative feelings
One of the groups studied was made up of adults with neuromuscular diseases. Participants in this group who practised gratitude also found they felt more positive than controls, they had fewer negative feelings, they slept better and woke up more refreshed. The study covered a period of only a few weeks so the results are impressive.
In a more recent, longer, study, researchers at California State University found children, aged 10-14, who had grown up to be grateful experienced many benefits. The researchers measured the gratitude levels at the start and end of a four-year period to establish who were the most grateful. Those in the most grateful 20 per cent had a greater sense of meaning, were more satisfied with their lives, were more happy and hopeful and had fewer negative emotions or symptoms of depression.
What all these findings seem to suggest is that cultivating gratitude improves your wellbeing in many ways and that this applies even if you have challenging health conditions.
That ungrateful colleague, complained of by the man on the bus, is essentially punishing himself by depriving himself of the benefits of gratitude.
So even if you’re a bit of a curmudgeon, consider giving deliberate gratitude a try. Now, I know you’re going to tell me that you haven’t got 15 minutes a day for this. Well, neither have I but take it from one who’s been there – you spend more than 15 minutes a day turning your grievances around in your mind and making yourself miserable. If you diverted some of that time to considering what things you feel grateful for, you might start enjoying the benefits pretty quickly.
Think of it as an experiment. It’s completely in your own control –you don’t have to tell the world – and it’s free.
Is that something to be thankful for?
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)