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. Is this just a nice tradition or are there measurable benefits to this type of exercise?
Research reveals that being thankful does generate a number of personal and social benefits.
For example, across three experiments, psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough 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.
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, participants in the gratitude condition reported fewer physical illness symptoms and indicated spending more time exercising than those in the control condition. Gratitude makes you feel good and promotes healthy living.
Also, these grateful participants were more likely to report helping someone with a personal problem or offering emotional support to others. Gratitude motivates prosocial 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 findings on the benefits of gratitude. The take home message is that being grateful is good for you and those around you. No need to wait until Thanksgiving. Research clearly shows that regular doses of gratitude are good for you and the social world you live in.
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.