Martin Luther referred to gratitude as “the basic Christian attitude” and it is still considered “the heart of the gospel.”1 Many religions and philosophies around the world have long understood the importance of gratitude. Cicero deemed it “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all others.”
Even the field of psychology has begun to acknowledge the importance of gratitude for producing abundant life.
For the first 100 years, psychology focused its efforts on psychological problems and how to remedy them. Those efforts reaped considerable results. Great strides were made in understanding and treating psychological disorders. But the consequence of this sole focus on psychological problems was that psychology had little to say about how to enjoy life. After being mired in the study of dysfunction for a century , a new field called Positive Psychology is rapidly emerging as the direction for the future.
Instead of trying to bring people at -5 to 0, Positive Psychology shifts the focus toward getting people from 0 to +5. This new branch of psychology studies positive emotions, strengths-based character, ethical behavior, and energizing relationships. It is a science that seeks to understand the factors that allow people to flourish. This is not simply the power of positive thinking, a self-help movement, or a passing fad. It is the fastest growing area of psychology.
With the advent of the Positive Psychology movement, gratitude has become a mainstream focus of psychological research. In a recent book entitled Positive Organizational Scholarship, studies on gratitude filled an entire chapter!
A large body of recent research suggests that gratitude is the key to living life well. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships.2 Grateful people have higher levels of personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.3 Grateful people have more positive ways of coping with the difficulties they experience in life and rely less on dysfunctional strategies, such as avoiding or denying the problem, blaming themselves, or coping through substance abuse.4 Grateful people even sleep better!5
Because research shows that gratitude is a strong factor in your overall well-being, several psychological interventions have been developed to increase gratitude. Therapists now suggest that clients keep a daily “gratitude journal.” The task is simple enough. At the end of your day, think of at least three things that you are grateful for. The outcome of this exercise is astonishing. It has been shown to have a powerful effect on reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, while simultaneously increasing a sense of joy and well-being. In a recent study, participants completing this task for one week experienced those positive outcomes for six months!6 Why not give it a try for a week?
1 Emmons, R. A., & Kneezel, T. T. (2005). Giving gratitude: Spiritual and religious correlates of gratitude. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 24.2, 140-48.
2 McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.
3 Wood, A. M., Joseph, S. & Maltby, N. (2009). Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the Big Five facets. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 655-660.
4 Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2007). Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 1108–1125.
5 Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-48.
6 Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N.,& Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.