What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has. It is a recognition of value independent of monetary worth. Spontaneously generated from within, it is an affirmation of goodness.

Research shows that people differ in the degree to which they are inclined to experience and express gratitude. As a result, gratitude is said to exist both as a temporary feeling and as a dispositional trait. In both cases, gratitude involves a process of recognizing, first, that one has obtained a positive outcome and, second, that there is an external source for that good outcome.

A social emotion, gratitude strengthens relationships. Its roots run deep in evolutionary history—emanating from the survival value of helping others and being helped in return. Studies show that there are specific areas of the brain that are involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude.

Gratitude is a spontaneous feeling but, increasingly, research demonstrates its value as a practice—that is, making conscious efforts to count one’s blessings. Studies show that people can deliberately cultivate gratitude—and there important social and personal benefits to doing so.

Why Gratitude Matters

It is possible to feel grateful toward loved ones, colleagues, animals, mother nature, and life in general. The emotion generates a climate of positivity that both reaches inward and extends outward.

Psychologists find that, over time, feeling grateful boosts happiness and fosters both physical and psychological health, even among those already struggling with mental health problems. Studies show that practicing gratitude curbs the use of words expressing negative emotions and shifts inner attention away from such negative emotions as resentment and envy, minimizing the possibility of ruminating over them (a hallmark of depression).

Further, the beneficial effects snowball over time. Brain scans of people assigned a task that stimulates expression of gratitude show lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that heighten sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude. The emotion literally pays itself forward.


Positive Psychology, Optimism

Cultivating Gratitude

Gratitude starts with noticing the goodness in one's life.

A materialistic culture that encourages constant wanting and sees possessions as the source of happiness is not the most fertile ground for gratitude. But it is not an insurmountable barrier to developing it. Envy and especially cynicism and narcissism are similarly "thieves of gratitude." In fact, the cultivation of gratitude may be at least a partial remedy for narcissism.

While gratitude is a social emotion and expressions of gratitude to others compound the benefits, the benefits obtain whether or not the feeling is communicated to or reciprocated by another person.

Here are some ways to foster gratitude:

  • Keep a journal of or in some way note big and little joys of daily life.
  • Write down "three good things"—identify three things that have gone well for you and identify the cause.
  • Write thank you notes to others.
  • Think about people who have inspired you and what about them was most significant.
  • Engage in "mental subtraction." Imagine what your life would be like if some positive event had not occurred.


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