At some point of our life, someone, perhaps your parents, teachers, lecturers or friends have done a little thing; this little thing, although it is small but you feel grateful. What is that thing we feel grateful? Cooking a meal for you? Spending precious time to teach you? Or Being with you when you are having a difficult moment? So perhaps this is a good time to discover the benefits of gratitude and to consider some tips on cultivating gratitude.
What is Gratitude?
The word ‘gratitude’ consists of a number different meanings depending on how you perceive the word. You may say gratitude as a virtue, or an emotion. The word gratitude is originated from the Latin root ‘gratia’ which bring the meaning of grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. From the a virtue perspective, gratitude is perceived as a person is mindful of good things that happen in his or her life and does not take them for granted (VIA Institute on Character, 2018). In term of emotion perspective, gratitude is a state that you feel grateful based on your recognition that you have obtained a positive outcome from someone or something (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Therefore, there is no solid decision on what gratitude is in the academic world. However, there are researcher initiated to define gratitude in a much holistic sense. They defined gratitude as ‘the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation’ (Sansone & Sansone, 2010, p.19). This definition is inclusive; in term of both state and trait contexts. Now, the most important question is: ‘from your perspective, what is gratitude?’
Research on Gratitude
Emmons and McCullough (2003) have contributed much of the scientific research on gratitude. In one of their classic study, they required participants to write a few sentences each week based on particular of topics focused. Participants from the first group were requested to write things they were grateful for that happened during the week. Meanwhile, participants from the second group were requested to write about events that they felt irritable or unpleasant to them. Lastly, participants from the third group were asked to write about neutral life events. After 10 weeks, participants who wrote about gratitude reported more optimistic and felt better about their lives.
In addition, Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) had participants to write a gratitude letter to a person and deliver the letter to the person within a week, as a form of behavioural expression of gratitude, the research found that gratitude participants reported more happiness and less depression at post-test and 1 month later compared to participants from control group which involved in recalling and writing early memory.
Wong et al. (2016) were trying to study the effectiveness of gratitude writing on mental health among 293 adults who were seeking university-based psychotherapy services. These adults were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (1) a control group which consisted psychotherapy only, (2) a group with psychotherapy plus expressive writing and (3) a group with a psychotherapy plus gratitude writing. Participants in the gratitude writing were required to write letters expressing gratitude to others. Meanwhile, participants from the expressive writing condition were required to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences. The study suggested that participants in the gratitude condition reported better mental health significantly compared to participants in the expressive writing and control conditions in 4 weeks as well as 12 weeks after the conclusion of the writing intervention. However, the research do not know whether differences among therapists might have an effect on the outcomes. Small sample size and limited population (European American) were also the limitation of this study. These are the issues that we could observed in the research of gratitude.
Recently, Deng et al. (2018) had initiated to study the effects of gratitude based interventions on subjective well-being and aggression in a sample of 96 violent prisoners in China. Participants were randomly assigned to three conditions consisted of gratitude-sharing, blessing counting, and a control groups. The interventions were conducted over five weeks. The study suggested that both gratitude based interventions namely gratitude sharing and blessing counting improved subjective well-being of prisoners and decreased aggression compared to prisoners from control group. These findings may suggested that gratitude-based interventions can be applied among male prisoners to improve further on the psychological function of prisons in China. However, the effects on women prisoner still remain unclear and its sample size is small and limited only in China.
In Wood et al. (2010)’s review study, they found there are a number of research suggest gratitude is relate to both positive relationships and gratitude is the characteristics required in the development and maintenance of the friendships as well as relationship connection and satisfaction.
Gratitude in Action
Here are some activities that we may try to cultivate gratitude in daily life:
Write a thank-you note. Writing a thank you letter to express your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Later, you can deliver the letter and read the letter to that person if you feel comfortable to do so. You may do it at least once a month. You may also write the letter to yourself. You may feel happier and better relationship with another person by doing so.
Thank someone or something mentally. Thinking about who has done something nice for you or reflecting on what went well in your life, and mentally thank individual (For example, your parents, your friends or your pets) or something (for example, the nature, or the God).
Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down your thoughts about what went well in your life; in a diary.
Count your blessings. You may also allocate a period of time every week to sit down and write about your blessings; to think and reflect on what went right or what you are grateful for. To be specific, you may pick a number (three or five things) of things and write it in details in term of your thoughts, feelings when something good happened to you.
Pray. You may use prayer to cultivate gratitude based on your own religion.
Meditate. Mindfulness allows a person to be with the present moment without judgment. By giving attention on what you are grateful for (the greenery of the forest) is also a form of appreciation.
(Adapted from Harvard Mental Health Letter 2011)
Personal Experience of Practising Gratitude
Personally, I like to add some creativity in the gratitude letter. I use postcard instead of A4 paper to write down my gratitude notes. Because I can add some drawings, and my signature in the postcard. Also, I think the beautiful picture of postcard is a form of appreciation that I can express to others. For me, it is a ‘why not?’ to try something new, innovative and creative from psychology that I learned from a class; which is sometime too formal for me!
For me, the gratitude postcard writing facilitated a narrative about a person, including: ‘who has contributed to my life?’, ‘what, when and how did he/she do something which led to a significant impact on my life?’ and ‘what could happen to me without his/her help?’ leading to create meaning and understanding of a person who I felt grateful for. Thus, this experience helped me to define the moments of appreciation with the person, and integrate memories of my gratitude to them thoughtfully, I felt that a sense of control over my gratitude experience and positive emotions appeared from the writing. I think, the combination of gratitude and expressive writing in a postcard have assisted me to enjoy the benefits of gratitude on my subjective and psychological well-being via thoughtful and meaningful narrative construction from expressive writing. Grateful narrative construction has led me to appreciate positive contributions of people.
In term of practicality, for me, I do not write the gratitude postcard regularly, I only write it during special events or incidents such as my friend had sent me a postcard and I am happy to write a postcard as a reply of appreciation. Saying a ‘thank you’ is good enough for me when I do not have time to practice gratitude writing.
What about you? What is your personal experience in applying gratitude in your life?
A Gentle Note for Reader
I think the purpose for me to write this article is to introduce the elements that might contribute to human well-being. Therefore I used GPSing Well-Being with an ‘element’ as a title for my article to reflect our journey of searching of well-being is personal experience. For example having gratitude might contribute to person A’s well-being but not person B’s well-being. And it is okay, as long as you perceive this article is offering you some understanding on ‘gratitude’ as one of the elements that contribute to well-being is good enough. Furthermore, I think I do not have rights to impose what you should do with your well-being but I am just to let you know that there are some benefits of these elements (such as gratitude) when you have already apply these elements (such as gratitude) in your daily life. It is okay for you to feel that some elements that I have introduced might not play a significant role in your well-being. You might find other elements of life that contribute to your well-being. I wish you could find that elements.
*The content of the article is not written for the replacement of counselling, psychotherapy or intervention. You are advised to seek for professional help should you have any concerns in your life.
Harvard Mental Health Letter: In Praise of Gratitude 2011
VIA Institute on Character: Gratitude 2018
Deng, Y., Xiang., R. X., Zhu, Y, Li, Y., Yu, S., & Liu, X. (2018). Counting blessings and sharing gratitude in a Chinese prisoner sample: Effects of gratitude-based interventions on subjective well-being and aggression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-9.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.
Sansone, R. A. & Sansone, R. A (2010). Gratitude and well-being: The benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry, 7(11), 18-22.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., Mcinnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilam, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 2016, 1-11.
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890-905.
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