Five Insights on Gratitude

New research explores the complex relationship between gratitude and health.

Posted Dec 23, 2019

Peter Griffin / Needpix
Source: Peter Griffin / Needpix

Every so often, psychologists attempt to condense the current state of knowledge in a given research area into a single review paper.

This was the approach taken in a new article published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Specifically, a team of psychologists led by Lilian Jans-Beken of Open University in Heerlen, The Netherlands, explored the connection between gratitude and human health.

"The study of gratitude, perceived as an important source of human strength, has gained increasing attention over the past decades," state Jans-Beken and her team. "With this updated review, we aimed to summarize the current research regarding state and trait gratitude associated with human health."

Analyzing over 50 studies across multiple domains of research, the scientists came to five key conclusions regarding the relationship between gratitude and health. 

Conclusion #1: Gratitude facilitates social well-being.

According to psychologists, well-being can be broken into three distinct categories: social well-being, emotional well-being, and psychological well-being. Studies have found that gratitude interventions such as keeping a gratitude diary or reflecting on positive daily events can facilitate social well-being. A 2016 study, for instance, found that keeping a gratitude diary increased grade students' sense of belonging. Moreover, studies conducted by the psychologists Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that expressions of gratitude by managers motivated their employees to be more productive in their daily work.  

Conclusion #2: Gratitude is associated with higher levels of emotional well-being.

Emotional well-being refers to the experience of positive emotional states such as happiness, life satisfaction, and flourishing. Studies have shown a positive association between expressions of gratitude and emotional well-being. One study, for instance, found that a gratitude intervention improved happiness in a sample of adult women (but not as much as a mindfulness intervention). Another study found that the "Three Good Things" intervention — an intervention in which people write down three things that went well for them at the end of each day ⁠— increased flourishing in a sample of elderly adults. 

Conclusion #3: Grateful people are less likely to exhibit psychopathologies.

Research by Salces-Cubero found that a gratitude intervention was successful in reducing negative affect and increasing psychological resilience in a sample of older adults. Other studies have found beneficial effects of gratitude interventions at the three-month follow-up mark, suggesting that gratitude interventions can have long-lasting positive effects. 

Conclusion #4: Not all gratitude interventions are successful.

One study found that gratitude journaling increased "meaningfulness" and academic engagement in a sample of college undergraduates. Another study, however, found no benefit of a gratitude intervention on academic engagement compared to other interventions. Furthermore, it is unclear whether gratitude interventions can reliably reduce anxiety and stress.

Conclusion #5:  Gratitude may have modest beneficial effects on physical health and bodily functions.

Numerous studies have examined the relationship between gratitude and various physical health markers, including cardiovascular health, stress and inflammation, pain perception, and sleep. One study found that keeping a gratitude journal did not improve heart rate or systolic blood pressure, but did improve diastolic blood pressure. Another study showed no effect of a gratitude intervention on pain among people with chronic back issues. A 2011 study found that focusing on things to be grateful about before bed each night increased pre-sleep calmness, but no more than other exercises such as distraction exercises.

The consensus? The authors conclude, "The reviewed studies emphasize that gratitude is beneficially, although modestly, linked to social well-being and to a lesser extent psychological well-being. Studies focused on physical health and psychopathology do not consistently point to a unique role of gratitude in these domains."

References

Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2019). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-40.