Blog #59 – More on gratitude
Last time, we looked at recent research findings on gratitude, specifically a study that reported on how we tend to underestimate the positive impact and overestimate the sense of awkwardness our gestures of gratitude can provoke in others, with this then having the unfortunate effect of making us less likely to offer thanks in the first place, and thus deny both ourselves and recipients the psychological benefits that can accrue from open and sincere expressions of gratitude.
During that blog entry, I also made a point of stressing how gratitude has become a fertile area for psychology researchers with an interest in well-being in recent years, with a wealth of studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals. The nature of academic research being what it is, these various studies tend to approach gratitude from different angles, with this helping to deepen our understanding of the area itself, while also broadening awareness on the gratitude-related benefits that can accrue to us all.
Another recent study approaches the topic from a markedly different direction, but nonetheless offers some fresh insights, while at the same time – as tends to be the case with professional research – also highlights fresh strands that require the research light to be shone upon them. First published online by The Journal of Positive Psychology at the end of last year, the paper “Gratitude across the life span: Age differences and links to subjective well-being” tackles the hitherto underexplored area of how different age-groups experience gratitude.
Authors William Chopik, Nicky Newton, Lindsay Ryan, Todd Kashdan, and Aaron Jarden asked the question “Does the presence and experience of gratitude differ by a person’s chronological age?” and in seeking to answer it used three large samples, totalling more than 30,000 people, ranging in age from 15 to 90.
The researchers took measures of gratitude, subjective well-being (happiness), and life satisfaction during the conduct of the study and arising from that reported trends to the effect that gratitude levels were highest among older adults, and lower among middle-aged and younger individuals. So, in the plainest language possible, what these results indicate is that the older you are the more likely you are to feel more gratitude in your life. Also, the association between gratitude and happiness did not vary across different ages, i.e., more gratitude was associated with higher subjective well-being throughout the lifespan, with no statistically significant difference between age groups.
On the key point of age-related differences on gratitude, the researchers were unable to offer a definitive explanation for the existence of this pattern. One of the possible explanations they refer to is that of the “finite time horizon”. In essence, older people will tend to have a greater awareness of their mortality, with that sense of time being limited lending itself to the prioritisation of “personally meaningful events above motives for novelty, growth, and curiosity”. This preference is said to manifest in choosing to invest in social interactions with the important people in your life, and self-consciously “striving to maintain intimate, healthy relationships”. The logic is that choosing to spend more time in this way lends itself to a greater sense of meaning in life and an appreciation for our key relationships, with this lending itself to greater gratitude, and with that in turn correlating with higher levels of subjective well-being.
However, it is also worth noting that there was one exception to the pattern of increasing levels of gratitude among older people, with the finding also reported that scores levelled off and began to decline among the very oldest participants. It is difficult to come up with a cheery interpretation for why that might be, and the authors do not attempt to manufacture a positive spin on this point. Instead, they note how this finding is consistent with pre-existing research which indicates that related characteristics such as optimism and subjective well-being also seem to decline in late life. They note that it has been proposed that the process of aging is “a delicate balance of managing losses while maintaining optimal functioning” and that the losses can mount in later life. In other words, the longer we live, the more likely we are to enter a period in life where we experience more loss and optimal functioning becomes harder to maintain and arising from that double-whammy of sorts it can become more difficult to maintain a positive outlook on life. However, the authors also note that there are many unanswered questions around gratitude and late life, and that it should be a central focus for future research, with a particular emphasis on how best we might target this segment of the population for strategies to boost life appreciation, while acknowledging the difficult backdrop against which these people can find themselves living, e.g., the loss of loved ones and varying degrees of cognitive decline.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.