A Happiness Expert Answers Three Questions About Gratitude

Character Lab has the privilege to work with some of the world’s foremost experts on helping people flourish. Sonja Lyubimirsky is a leading expert on happiness. She’s a professor at UC Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness. But she has recently turned her attention from happiness to gratitude, and we wanted to know why. She was kind enough to share her thoughts.

Why gratitude?

The more that I study gratitude, the more I find it to be an incredibly fascinating emotion. One reason is that gratitude doesn’t always feel good — when you acknowledge how much others have helped and supported you in the past, you may feel indebted, guilty, or uncomfortable. We believe that that sense of indebtedness and discomfort is actually productive — it leads people to want to pay it back and pay it forward. Studies from our and others’ labs have also found that when people express gratitude, they feel more humble (after recognizing that their success is not just due to them), more connected (by strengthening their relationship with their benefactor), and more elevated (that is, inspired to be a better person). All of these feelings, we propose, serve to motivate a person and move them to be a more productive, healthier, and kinder individual.

What is the relationship between gratitude and happiness?

Multiple randomized controlled experiments from our lab have shown that expressing gratitude (relative to doing something neutral) leads to increased happiness. This is not surprising.

Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions — it’s almost impossible to feel simultaneously grateful and envious, bitter, angry, or disappointed.

Expressing gratitude also strengthens relationships (an enormous source of happiness), helps people savor positive experiences, facilitates coping with adversity, and prevents people from taking things for granted. All of these outcomes combine to boost well-being.

If you were a classroom teacher, what would you do to promote gratitude in your classroom?

If I were a classroom teacher, I would try to encourage my students to express gratitude on a regular basis. This can take on many forms, depending on the subject matter taught and the comfort level of teachers and students. In some classrooms, what might work is to ask students to share what they’re grateful for — either out loud (say, at the beginning of class or before a stressful test or challenge) or privately (by writing it down).

In others, the teacher might model gratitude by regularly mentioning to whom or for what she is personally grateful (e.g., her high school history teacher or that she lives in a beautiful city or that she had the strength to get through her parents’ divorce, etc.). In others still, gratitude could be woven into the subject matter — for example, asking students what a protagonist in a novel or a historical figure might have been grateful for.

In short, gratitude is an intriguing, powerful, and multi-faceted emotion, and I can’t wait to learn more about its benefits and downsides from our ongoing research.

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