The Evidence on Giving Thanks

Research demonstrates the benefits of gratitude.

Posted Nov 27, 2019

Rawpixel/Adobe Stock
Source: Rawpixel/Adobe Stock

Millions of people will gather with family and friends this week to celebrate what may be one of the most quintessential American holidays – Thanksgiving.

As its name implies, Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks – or showing appreciation or gratitude. It turns out there is a significant body of scientific literature demonstrating that thankfulness.

Alex Wood, Jeffrey Froh and Adam Geraghty conducted a comprehensive review on gratitude. They looked at how gratitude promotes well-being and, further, examined intervention programs that attempt to achieve positive outcomes by promoting gratitude.

The authors note that although we may feel grateful for specific events, gratitude can also be seen as “part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.” (You may have heard the expression an “attitude of gratitude”).  Some people are more likely than others to notice and appreciate the positive in life. And this orientation seems to protect people from psychological distress.

Their review shows that gratitude is negatively related to depression. In one study, an attitude of “thankfulness” reduced the risk of disorders, such as major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and drug abuse. Gratitude has also been found to help people adjust to traumatic life events and their aftermath. On the positive side, a dozen studies have found a positive relationship between gratitude and feelings of well-being.

But what is the reason for these correlations? It could be that less depressed people are more likely to be grateful, rather than the opposite. To answer this question, scientists have developed intervention programs to promote feelings of gratitude and rigorously evaluated them. The authors review 12 studies that examined the effects of interventions such as daily listing of reasons to be grateful, thinking or writing more generally about gratitude and expressing gratitude with behaviors, such as writing a thank you note to someone.

The findings are very encouraging, with programs that promote gratefulness resulting in statistically significant increases in positive emotion, and decreases in negative emotion and worrying. A study of adolescents even found an increase in satisfaction with school after a gratitude intervention. More research, of course, needs to be done, but based on this review, promoting gratitude seems to improve well-being.

And more interesting evidence was published in 2017 in a separate review, which found that “the experience of gratitude” was greater in older adults compared to middle-aged and young adults.

An appealing part of the gratitude list idea lies in its simplicity. Anyone can do this – interventions are as straightforward as listing 3 to 5 things for which one is grateful before going to bed.

So as you gather with your family and friends this week, encourage each person to say something they are grateful for before your meal. And as we launch into the busy holiday season, the evidence certainly shows it is worth pausing – on Thanksgiving and every day – to give thanks for what we have.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.