Gratitude Is a Gateway to Positive Emotions

The science behind why gratitude can help us feel better.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

Artem Beliaikin/Pexels
Source: Artem Beliaikin/Pexels

Does expressing gratitude regularly seem flaky, fuzzy, or overly altruistic?

At the same time, do you feel stuck, upset, or like you’re constantly chasing joy and happiness?

Giving gratitude a chance could help you along your quest to better mood and health. The scientific research on gratitude shows that, when routinely practiced, feelings of gratefulness are accompanied by more positive emotions.

Here are three ways that gratitude is a gateway to positive emotions:

1. Gratitude helps your brain process other positive emotions, including joy.

If you practice gratitude regularly for at least two to eight weeks, it is likely you will experience increased positive emotions, including interest, excitement, joy, and pride.

Gratitude increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, which serve as key neurotransmitters that give us feelings of contentment. If we are grateful more often, the happiness-producing neural pathways strengthen, just as exercise strengthens the body.

The Greater Good Science Center at The University of California at Berkeley suggests gratitude journaling for 15 minutes, three times per week, for two weeks to see positive effects. Forbes magazine contributor Janet Miller suggests it takes eight weeks for brain patterns to shift and induce positive effects.

Taking the first step towards your goal of feeling better and liking yourself begins with making gratitude a regular practice, in whatever method you enjoy.

2. Gratitude helps people savor positive experiences for a longer period of time.

In a study from the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, researchers discuss how gratitude “maintains positive emotions resulting from a positive experience.” Put differently, these researchers conclude that gratitude is able to “maintain elevated levels of positive emotions,” at least for the short term. 

Participants were asked to write about a recent achievement (i.e., their “positive experience”). Then a gratitude intervention was employed, asking participants to list factors for which they were grateful that contributed to their achievement for 15 minutes (i.e., the “gratitude intervention”). The study found that the gratitude intervention led to elevated positive emotions at a subsequent stage compared to those in the control group.  

This 2019 study suggests that by expressing gratitude for a positive experience, you are able to savor it. 

3. Gratitude and joy feed off each other or, in other words, are symbiotic.

A study in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that gratitude and joy work hand in hand. Researchers conclude there is “an intriguing upward spiral between gratitude and joy: as one cultivates the disposition for gratitude, this increases the frequency of experiences of joy, which in turn should foster the disposition of joy, thus increasing gratitude.”

While no specific gratitude intervention was used, and trait gratitude was measured here, the correlation between gratitude and joy is clear, revealing a symbiotic relationship that could be replicated in all of us.   

In sum, for those seeking to feel better—and feel better more often—gratitude might be the handiest tool in your toolbox. The upward spiral of positive emotions, including more prolonged states of positivity, is undoubtedly just one of the quite favorable effects of a regular gratitude practice.