Gratitude may be more beneficial than we commonly suppose. One recent study asked subjects to write a note of thanks to someone and then estimate how surprised and happy the recipient would feel – an impact that they consistently underestimated. Another study assessed the health benefits of writing thank you notes. The researchers found that writing as few as three weekly thank you notes over the course of three weeks improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings and reduced symptoms of depression.
The benefits of gratitude
When we focus on the things we regret, such as failed relationships, family disputes, and setbacks in career and finance, we tend to become more regretful. Conversely, when we focus on the things we are grateful for, a greater sense of happiness tends to pervade our lives. And while no one would argue for cultivating a false sense of blessedness, there is mounting evidence that counting our blessings is one of the best habits we can develop to promote mental and physical health.
Gratitude has long enjoyed a privileged position in many of the world’s faith traditions. For example, the Biblical Book of Psalms counsels gratitude that is both enduring and complete, saying, “I will give thanks to you forever” and “with my whole heart.”
Why gratitude is good for you
There are multiple explanations for such benefits of gratefulness. One is the fact that expressing gratitude encourages others to continue being generous, thus promoting a virtuous cycle of goodness in relationships. Similarly, grateful people may be more likely to reciprocate with acts of kindness of their own. Broadly speaking, a community in which people feel grateful to one another is likely to be a more pleasant place to live than one characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment.
The beneficial effects of gratitude may extend even further. For example, when many people feel good about what someone else has done for them, they experience a sense of being lifted up, with a corresponding enhancement of their regard for humanity. Some are inspired to attempt to become better people themselves, doing more to help bring out the best in others and bringing more goodness into the world around them.
Gratitude also tends to strengthen a sense of connection with others. When people want to do good things that inspire gratitude, the level of dedication in relationships tends to grow and relationships seem to last longer. And when people feel more connected, they are more likely to choose to spend their time with one another and demonstrate their feelings of affection in daily acts.
Of course, acts of kindness can also foster discomfort. For example, if people feel they are not worthy of kindness or suspect that some ulterior motive lies behind it, the benefits of gratitude will not be realised. Gratitude can flourish only if people are secure enough in themselves and sufficiently trusting to allow it to do so.
Another obstacle to gratitude is often called a sense of entitlement. Instead of experiencing a benefaction as a good turn, people sometimes regard it as a mere payment of what they are owed, for which no one deserves any moral credit. While seeing that justice is done is important, supplanting all opportunities for genuine feelings and expressions of generosity can also produce a more impersonal and fragmented community.
There are a number of practical steps anyone can take to promote a sense of gratitude. One is simply spending time on a regular basis thinking about someone who has made a difference, or perhaps writing a thank you note or expressing such gratitude in person. Others are found in ancient religious disciplines, such as meditating on benefactions received from another person or actually praying for the health and happiness of a benefactor.
In addition to benefactions received, it is also possible to focus on opportunities to do good oneself, whether those acted on in the past or hoped for in the future. Some people are most grateful not for what others have done for them but for chances they enjoyed to help others. To envision gratitude at its best, imagine a person hoping and perhaps even praying for an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.
In regularly reflecting on the things in his life he is grateful for, Defoe’s Crusoe believes that he becomes a far better person than he would have been had he remained in the society from which he originally set out on his voyage: