The Science of Gratitude

Happy April, everyone! Spring finally feels like it has come here to stay for longer than short periods at a time. I am grateful to be able to enjoy the sunshine and spend more time outside.

I want to focus this post on gratitude and go into the science of why implementing it into our daily lives can really help us experience more positive emotions (even amidst negative situations). I really want to highlight this topic because I have personally found that even a single thought of gratitude can dramatically shift my mood from negative to positive and turn a bad day into a good one. You might think, “Wow, a single thought?” Yes, most definitely a single thought! Gratitude can be a very significant tool in helping us lead the kinds of lives we want to live.

The positive psychology field has been very successful in garnering scientific researchers to tap into the effects of how gratitude affects our lives. One of the most informative studies came from the efforts of three scientists, Dr. Emmons at UC Davis, Dr. McCullough at U of Miami, and Dr. Tsang at Baylor. The collaboration between these researchers in 2002 resulted in a famous study (made up of four smaller studies) that assessed how grateful disposition (choosing to be grateful) affected the quality of life (along with numerous other lifestyle factors) in study participants. To measure grateful disposition, they developed a 6-statement Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6), which was given to the participants who had to self-report their ratings on a scale from 1-7, with 1=strongly disagreeing and 7=strongly agreeing. You can see and download the questionnaire here and read the original research article here.

Below are the 6 statements that were on The Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6) and the four studies that the researchers performed:

  1. I have so much in life to be thankful for.
  2. If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.
  3. When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.
  4. I am grateful to a wide variety of people.
  5. As I get older I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events, and situations that have been part of my life history.
  6. Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone.

Study 1: The researchers recruited 238 undergraduate psychology students to take the GQ-6 and self-report their life satisfactionvitality, subjective happiness, optimism, hope, positive and negative affects, and psychological symptoms (anxiety/depression/etc). They then wanted to look at the correlation between grateful disposition and the above measures of positive well-being, in addition to prosociality, spirituality/religiousness, and the Big Five traits.

Study 2: This was similar to Study 1, but the researchers involved non-students through a web survey on the internet and wanted to see the correlation between grateful disposition and positive and negative affects, the disposition to forgive, spirituality, and the Big Five traits.

Study 3: The researchers looked at the correlation between the factors considered in Studies 1& 2 and grateful disposition, but also looked further into a relationship between materialismenvy, and grateful disposition in 156 undergraduate psychology students.

Study 4: From Studies 1-3, the researchers found that disposition toward
gratitude was correlated with the Extraversion/positive affectivity, Neuroticism/negative affectivity, and Agreeableness traits from the Big Five assessment. In this study, they wanted to see if there was any correlations that existed independently of these Big Five traits and retroactively performed correlation statistics by keeping certain Big Five traits constant in their re-analysis.

So what did the researchers conclude from these studies? They had numerous findings and conclusions, many of which were laid down as a foundation for future gratitude research, but overall, they found that grateful people are higher in positive emotions and life satisfaction and lower in negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and envy. Even more interesting is that most people report being grateful (an average rating of nearly 6 on a 7 point scale). Gratitude really is all around us!

Interestingly, the study showed that a grateful disposition didn’t necessarily diminish unpleasant feels (i.e. make our problems go away), but did enhance pleasant emotions. Dr. Emmons states on his lab website that, “Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.

What does this all mean for us going forward? It’s absolutely GREAT news and shows us that, while gratitude doesn’t make our problems go away, it can certainly enhance our ability to experience positive emotions in life. Also, even if one is born with a lower grateful disposition, there are ways to cultivate more gratitude in life. I find that gratitude helps me get to a better mental state of mind that increases my ability to find clarity in unpleasant situations and gain the strength to find solutions to problems i’m facing. Gratitude is my catalyst to making better decisions in life. Was I always like this? Absolutely not. By making it a goal to practice more gratitude every day (through the suggestions I make below) has truly made a dramatic change in my life for the better.

With all of this being said, what are some ways we can cultivate more gratitude in our lives?

  1. Keep a gratitude journal and use it to write down all the things and people in life you’re grateful for. This is a wonderful reference you can go to during moments in life when you feel negative emotions. You can also create a daily exercise and write down 3 positive things that happen every day, which is is a great way to seek out the good things that happen to us on a daily basis.
  2. Write a gratitude letter to people you are grateful for. Show them how thankful you are for them being in your life. On that note, write a gratitude letter to yourself and highlight what parts of yourself you are grateful for. Show yourself the same gratitude you show others!
  3. Meditate with a lovingkindness meditation (also called Metta meditation) that evokes compassion towards yourself and others by repeating loving phrases towards yourself and others. My meditation teacher (in the Saturday morning group meditation class I used to go to regularly) would always include this Metta meditation at the end of our 30 minute individual meditation practice and I often felt my heart open after doing this.
  4. Count your blessings and try to circumvent negative thoughts that pop in with something that you’re grateful for. I like to personally ask myself during hard times, “What can I learn from this? What is this situation teaching me?” and try to use every negative situation as an opportunity to grow and/or learn more about myself.
  5. Make cultivating gratitude a shared effort and have a shared Google doc/Skype date/club meeting/journal/list/e-mail thread with someone else or a group of friends who is/are trying to cultivate more gratitude into his/her/their life/lives as well. Just like finding a workout buddy, our goals can be more easily obtained (and fun!) if we share them with others and have someone else hold us accountable for what we are trying to achieve. I also find it helps to find more motivation when someone else is participating in a goal with you, and luckily this gratitude goal will benefit all included party members in a very positive way.

I hope this article has inspired you to cultivate more gratitude in your life. What are you grateful for? 🙂


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