In an earlier post in this series, we focused on the factors that tend to influence individual levels of happiness and well-being. This involved highlighting three lists of variables compiled from a number of pre-existing studies, ranking items as contributing to happiness to small, medium, and high degrees.
While all of the items mentioned in those lists would merit a dedicated blog entry – and perhaps over time each will receive one – for now we will focus on one of the variables that appeared on the list for high impact – gratitude.
While readers may have been surprised to find certain variables where they were located on the three lists (e.g., some might have assumed that having children impacts more on happiness than existing research findings suggest), it is likely that most people would not have been surprised to see that gratitude can make a strong positive difference to levels of happiness and well-being.
However, recognising that to be the case on an intuitive level is all well and good, but how might we go about trying to incorporate that into our lives? How might we take that research-based insight and use it to our own advantage on a day-to-day basis? In other words, how might we try to best express and best experience gratitude, with a view towards making a sustainable, positive difference to our level of happiness and sense of well-being?
Those of you who have been regularly following this blog will not be surprised to read that a relatively sizable body of research has built up over the last few decades looking to answer these very questions.
In 2003, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough wrote what has proven to be a highly influential and much referenced article, highlighting the potential effectiveness of ‘counting blessings’ as a strategy for enhancing individual well-being.
Billed as ‘Counting Blessings Versus Burdens’, this research looked at the impact of asking participants to consciously focus on positive or negative events in their lives.
Countless variations have spun out of the approach outlined in this paper, but the basic thrust of what Emmons and McCullough did was to take 192 United States-based undergraduate college students and assign them to three experimental conditions – gratitude, hassles, and events. Each of the three groups were given a packet of 10 sheets on which to write weekly reports for the duration of the experiment.
The instructions written on each sheet for gratitude condition participants were as follows:
“There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.”
Hassles condition participants received these instructions:
“Hassles are irritants – things that annoy or bother you. They occur in various domains of life, including relationships, work, school, housing, finances, health, and so forth. Think back over today and, on the lines below, list up to five hassles that occurred in your life.
The events condition was set up for control purposes. Participants assigned to this condition weren’t asked to focus on the extremes of gratitude or hassles; instead, they were offered a more neutral, open-ended set of instructions. The point being that the neutral condition allows for a comparison to be made between it and the active conditions when analysing the results. Instructions for these participants were:
“What were some of the events or circumstances that affected you in the past week? Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below the five events that had an impact on you.”
All participants were also asked to offer weekly self-ratings on mood (using 30 positive and negative affect terms, e.g., interested, energetic, joyful, guilty, stressed, hostile), estimated time spent exercising, physical symptoms experienced, reactions to social support received, and also to answer two questions geared towards global life appraisals.
Statistical analyses of all data gathered throughout the process revealed that the gratitude condition elicited greater gratitude than the hassles condition, while neither elicited more gratitude than the events condition.
Other notable results included the gratitude-group experiencing fewer symptoms of physical illness than participants in the other two groups, while they also were found to have spent far more time exercising (1.5 hours per week) than hassles participants.
The individual piece of published research I am focusing on here also included other studies which offered additional support for the benefits of gratitude, but space limitations prevent me from lingering on that work here.
The take home message offered by Emmons and McCullough centred on the potential benefits of feeling gratitude. More specifically, by comparing the outcome for participants asked to focus on gratitude and hassles respectively, they were able to highlight the differences that can accrue when individuals are specifically primed to either look for those parts of life for which to be thankful, as opposed to seeking out the irritants or aggravations that will always be found if we shine a light.
This lesson has been learnt by many over the years. The practice of maintaining a daily or weekly gratitude log/diary/journal is being followed by increasing numbers of people, many of whom report a positive impact on happiness and well-being arising from doing so.
Part of the rationale behind this is that we are effectively training our brain to focus on the positive, but also overriding that human tendency to disregard the positive events in our lives and instead focus on the negative.
I will close out this entry with a suggestion/challenge for readers. If you have never tried to maintain a gratitude log before, try it now. Working off the instructions given above, try to set aside time every day and write a list of 5 events/occurrences for which you are grateful, and continue to do so for the next two weeks.
What’s the worst that could happen?