When you think about gratitude, do you first think about your own feelings, or about other people?
Gratitude is defined according to the Oxford English Dictionary as “The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”¹ However, this definition is ambiguous and incomplete. Does “being thankful” imply action, or can it be synonymous with “feeling thankful”? “Readiness to show appreciation” versus “a show of appreciation”, also falls short of requiring action for the conditions of gratitude to be met.
Is it enough to simply feel gratitude or should it be acted upon? Does gratitude need to be received by someone else?
Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others — Cicero
Gratitude remained largely the concern of philosophers and theologians until the emergence of the positive psychology movement around the turn of the millennium². As psychological study expanded its focus to examine positive traits and healthy human behaviour, feeling gratitude has been highlighted as a key factor in personal well-being.
Over the past twenty years, scientific studies have confirmed positive benefits for individuals who cultivate gratitude³. As well as improving general happiness and well-being, the benefits play out across many aspects of our personal lives including:
- improving sleep⁴
- reducing stress
- alleviating depression⁵
- developing healthy eating habits⁶
- improving resilience⁷
There is a significant body of evidence to show that feeling grateful on a regular basis has a multitude of benefits for those who use techniques to habituate or ritualise it³.
One popular technique for ritualising gratitude is to use a ‘gratitude journal’ to record, often nightly, a list of things you felt grateful for during the day. This technique can be effective because it sets aside time to dedicate to gratitude. It also encourages focus and mindfulness around positive experiences rather than negative ones that may have occurred during the day.
While it’s rare to come across a technique that provides so many immediate personal benefits, concept of gratitude being promoted as personal is problematic. The elements of the Positive psychology research on gratitude that have formed popular practices like journaling have resulted in an individualistic and internalised view of gratitude. This excludes an important part of the picture — other people, as recipients of gratitude.
Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it — William Arthur Ward
When we share it, gratitude acts as a powerful social instrument. It communicates to another person that a want has been met, understood and appreciated. When you share gratitude, bonds form, creating reciprocal relationships, building and even re-gaining trust. All things that are crucial to the success of high-performing teams.
If we shared gratitude readily, and the focus was on the act of showing gratitude to a recipient, versus internalising it privately, we could generate new social benefits while continuing to enjoy the individual benefits we know of.
When reflecting on gratitude, focus your gratitude on people rather than on ‘things’. The sun will keep rising in the morning whether we are grateful for it or not, but people may change their behaviour or cease doing something positive if they don’t know we are grateful for it.
If you are using a gratitude journal, you could try changing your prompt from “Today I felt grateful for…” to “Today I shared gratitude with…”
It is important to focus on gratitude, but don’t keep it to yourself. If there’s someone you’re grateful for, make them aware. This gives you all the benefits of feeling gratitude and serves as positive reinforcement and gives joy to the recipient.
Tips on sharing gratitude:
- Don’t hesitate! Spontaneous displays of gratitude are often the most meaningful
- Be specific, if there’s a particular thing someone did or a way they did it, let them know
- Be genuine, only share gratitude when you feel it
- Do it in person, face-to-face is a more effective way of communicating gratitude
- Use emotions, let them know how their act or approach made you feel.
If we broaden how we think about and practice gratitude, we gain wide social benefits as well as improving our individual well-being.
Thank you for reading and sharing this article… I feel very grateful.
- “gratitude.” The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 May. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
- Emmons, R. (2008). Thanks!. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43–48
- Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). GRATITUDE AND HAPPINESS: DEVELOPMENT OF A MEASURE OF GRATITUDE, AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING. Social Behavior & Personality, 31(5), 431.
- Fritz, Megan M.; Armenta, Christina N.; Walsh, Lisa C.; Lyubomirsky, Sonja (March 2019). “Gratitude facilitates healthy eating behavior in adolescents and young adults”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 81: 4–14
- Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2007). Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 1108–1125.
- Gratitude, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gratitude&oldid=891762154 (last visited May 3, 2019).
- Positive psychology, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Positive_psychology&oldid=893961993 (last visited May 3, 2019).
- “The science of gratitude” prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. May 2018. https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf