More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

The Benefits of Being Thankful

Reasons to give thanks.

On Thanksgiving, many people have the tradition of sitting around the dinner table and taking a few minutes to reflect on and share with others what they are thankful for. As a psychologist, I was curious, is this just a nice tradition or is there some social or personal benefit to this type of exercise? Of course it is a nice tradition. However, after investigating the literature, I discovered it is personally and socially advantageous to be thankful.

For example, across three experiments, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (2003) found evidence that the experience of gratitude leads to positive psychological, physical, and social outcomes. In these studies, the researchers randomly assigned people to a gratitude condition or one of a few control conditions. Participants in the gratitude condition were asked to spend a few minutes thinking about and listing what they were grateful for. Participants in control conditions contemplated and listed other (non-gratitude related) life experiences. Depending on the study, participants engaged in this gratitude or non-gratitude reflection task weekly (for a total of 10 weeks) or daily (for a total of 13 days). Further, participants completed a number of other questions relating to psychological functioning, social functioning, and physical health. I will briefly summarize the findings.

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In general, participants who were asked to think about what they were grateful for, compared to control condition participants, experienced greater levels of optimism, positive mood, and feelings of belongingness over the period of the study. That is, experiencing gratitude promoted psychological well-being. Further, in one study, these participants reported fewer physical illness symptoms and indicated spending more time exercising. This suggests that gratitude may also promote healthy living. Also, these participants were more likely to report helping someone with a personal problem or offering emotional support to others. In other words, gratitude may also motivate pro-social or moral behavior.

In addition, in one of these studies, the researchers recruited participants with a neuromuscular disease (NMD) for a 21 day study. Similar results emerged. NMD individuals randomly assigned to the gratitude condition, relative to NMD individuals in a control condition, experienced higher levels of positive mood and lower levels of negative mood. Gratitude NMD participants also reported getting more sleep and better quality sleep than NMD control participants. In this study, the researchers also asked participants' spouses or partners to complete daily reports regarding the participants. Spouses and partners of participants in the gratitude condition, compared to spouses and partners of participants in the control condition, observed higher levels of positive mood and lower levels of negative mood. In other words, the benefits of gratitude were noticeable to others.

This is just a very brief overview of these studies and there are a number of other published studies on the benefits of gratitude. The take home message is that being grateful is good for you and those around you. So on Thanksgiving, be sure to take a little time to actually be thankful. Also, even though Thanksgiving is the holiday that such reflection is perhaps most likely, based on the research conducted by Emmons and McCullough, it may be a good idea to take a little time each day to be grateful. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Further Reading:

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.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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