Happy Thanksgiving: The Benefits of Gratitude

How a gratitude intervention transformed my students.

Posted Nov 27, 2014

A little over six months ago a student walked into my office and proposed a thesis project that transformed my entire lab. His idea was pretty simple—we know that gratitude interventions increase happiness and health, but what are the other benefits? Does increased gratitude improve our relations at work? Can gratitude change the internal monologue we have with ourselves every day?

Because I lead a positive psychology lab, these types of honors projects are rather typical. And so, we started the process of developing his ideas, selecting the research papers he would read, discussing hypotheses during our meetings, and coordinating the team who would put the project up online. This doesn’t sound very transformative yet, I know, but changing the way people interact with each other doesn’t happen overnight.

Let’s start where we started. We began looking through our massive datasets to learn as much as we can about how grateful people are different from the rest of us. Here is what we learned:

#1 Grateful people are very, very happy. While this has been verified numerous times, I was a bit overwhelmed by the fact that grateful people were the most satisfied with their lives, experienced the most daily vitality and purpose as well as the least daily negativity, had the highest scores on psychological well-being, and even reported the highest levels of love, joy, compassion, and awe.

#2 Grateful people are very close to their friends and family. There are three fundamental psychological needs which must be satisfied for us to flourish. Grateful people had the highest scores on relatedness satisfaction—they like interacting with people and others get along with them. Given how important good social relations are to our happiness, it is of little wonder they are some of the happiest people in our database.

#3 Grateful people aspire to have meaningful relationships. Relative to more extrinsic goals (like wealth, fame, and popularity), grateful people place importance on pursuing meaningful relationships and making contributions to their community. Grateful people even define "the good life" as contributing to others’ happiness.

Now, these are just a sampling of the many correlates of gratitude, but there was an amazingly consistent connection between gratitude, being close with friends and family, and happiness. However, the real transformation began after developed our gratitude intervention and started testing the functionality as a lab.

Because the intervention we developed is an automated online study (people complete a nightly gratitude journal--see below), we all took part. Every night we would all complete our gratitude journals.

First, my thesis student sent me a quick email thanking me for all my work as an adviser. Then, when my student presented his thesis topic, he thanked the coder on the project for all his countless hours of work. My coder and I were genuinely touched by his simple expression of gratitude. Next, my coder asked our senior data analyst for some help and sent him a thank you email when he fixed a problem. Yesterday after we finally worked out all the bugs in our code everyone acknowledged at least one team member and thanked them for their effort. Finally, a student not related to the project wrote an email to me and another student yesterday to thank us for all the help we had provided her over the last few years.

It was as if gratitude was spreading through our lab—it seemed that everyone was thanking everyone else. And, as you would expect, it seemed that the lab was authentically happier after we started testing our gratitude intervention. I have been so encouraged by what has happened, I am thinking of continuing to test interventions just to see how much more we can transform.

I am pretty excited about our gratitude intervention and some of the benefits you can experience if you take part. If you go to BeyondThePurchase.Org you can find our two-week gratitude intervention. First, immediately after completing the pre-intervention survey we will tell you how often and how intensely you have recently experienced both positive and negative feelings. Next, every night after you complete our brief gratitude journal, we will tell you how grateful you have felt today—we also have a graphic displaying how grateful you have felt each day of the intervention so you can see how much grateful you are. Finally, after the intervention we will provide you personalized feedback about how much your gratitude has changed over the last two weeks.