The Surprising Benefits of Gratitude & Awe

Gratitude is widely touted as a good thing, as is perhaps to a lesser extent the emotion of awe. Both are elements of spiritual traditions and practices that have been around for thousands of years, and both are prosocial. But research is finding that they go much deeper than all that.

Gratitude acts on the parasympathetic nervous system to offset stress, including anxiety and anger.

Robert Emmons, PhD, a gratitude researcher, has found that gratitude increases happiness and, reciprocally, decreases depression. Since high-arousal states like anxiety and anger interfere with empathy, gratitude also allows for more empathy, which is part of its prosocial effect. Stress compromises immune functioning, so gratitude also takes a load off the immune system. Often gratitude is something we can experience towards other people, which of course can bring us closer and make us feel more connected.

Gratitude is self-reinforcing, both internally and interpersonally. Like a muscle, the more you exercise it the stronger it gets, and if parents model it their children are likely to develop their gratitude muscles as well. And people who have the least gratitude to start with stand to benefit the most from starting a gratitude practice.

Awe is another wonderful positive emotion. The most common sources of awe are large-scale places or events in nature such as a cliffside view of the ocean or the Grand Canyon, a dramatic display of lightning and thunder, or a beautiful sunset. Part of the benefit of awe is that it expands our consciousness beyond the confines of ourselves through immersion in a much larger whole. It takes us out of the loops, ruminations and pettiness of our own minds. By the same token, it also creates a sense of openness that can make us feel more connected to the world and more available to others, which is the prosocial aspect. Similarly awe decreases entitlement and increases generosity.

As with gratitude, recent research has found that awe actually effects changes in our bodies at a biological level.

Research by The Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley has found that the experience of awe reduces inflammatory cytokines in a way that improves immune functioning and fights depression. Being in nature is often cited as beneficial for mental health and awe is likely a significant part of that.

Though awe may be most easily stimulated by grand nature scenes, you can also promote it by experiencing or thinking about things at various scales that instill a sense of wonder or inspiration. For example, deeply appreciating how our hearts and lungs work non-stop to keep us alive, or reading stories or watching videos of exceptional human achievements.

All of these qualities of gratitude and awe are especially helpful in relationships.

Being grateful for your partner’s positive qualities and actions benefits you directly. Then if you express your appreciation for those things on a regular basis it makes your partner feel better as well and enhances the connection between you. It can be a fun and soothing ritual (perhaps preparing for sleep) to take turns thinking of things that you are grateful for in general. Perhaps you can even feel awe for some of your partner’s outstanding qualities or actions. And you can certainly make a point of finding ways to experience awe together.

Here is a quick list of ways to cultivate gratitude and awe, individually or together:

  • List 5 things that you’re grateful for.
  • If you have trouble thinking of things, use part of the alphabet to cue yourself. For example F: food, G: generous friends, H: your hands, I: your imagination, etc.
  • Think of seemingly simple things you take for granted that you would miss if you lost them: health, clean and hot water from indoor plumbing, your home that protects you from the elements, etc.
  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Look up at the stars at night and imagine the vastness of the solar system and universe.
  • Go for a walk in the park and notice the majesty of the trees. Think about how any tree transports water from the soil all the way out to all the leaves.
  • Read an inspiring book, or watch an inspiring video.

The Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley is a fantastic resource for research and information about gratitude, awe, compassion, and other positive emotions.

(Thanks for reading! I’m a psychologist with a private practice in Noe Valley, San Francisco)

Image Credits: Water Wall