The science behind gratitude: well-being

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Ralph Waldo Emerson


During the last weeks of the gratitude challenge I have been doing, I never stopped to think about how gratitude is actually defined, it is just something I intuitively felt I knew…turns out it is quite a bit more!

In one of his papers Robert A. Emmons describes gratitude as such: “gratitude defies easy classification. It has been conceptualized as an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, or a coping response. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin root gratia, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. […]. The object of gratitude is other-directed—persons, as well as to impersonal (nature) or nonhuman sources”. Sansone describes gratitude as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation”. Within the field of gratitude research, there is a lack of agreement about exact definition.

Quite a few papers have promoted a theoretical and experimental connection between gratitude and well-being, and it seems to be very logical that experiencing and expressing gratitude and thankfulness leads to other positive feelings, which then increases our sense of well-being. On the other side other studies and publications have shown a more negative aspect. Being grateful means to (sometimes) be the recipient of a good deed, making some feel indebted and dependent on others. They experience this indebtedness as unpleasant, and resent feeling having to “repay their debt”.


In Emmons’ and McCullough’s Counting Blessings Versus Burdens study they looked at gratitude and well-being in three studies. In the first study the 192 participants were divided into the groups: blessings, hassles, or life events. They had write a weekly report with five things in these categories (what are you grateful for, what happened this week that had an impact etc.) as well as their mood, physical symptoms, reactions to social support received, time spent exercising. Participants in the gratitude condition felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic regarding their expectations for the upcoming week. They reported fewer physical complaints and reported spending significantly more time exercising. The second study with 157 participants were divided into the similar groups (blessings, hassles or downward social comparison (how are you better than others)) with similar questions, but had to write daily reports. People in the gratitude condition experienced higher levels of positive affect, as well as prosocial motivation i.e. more likely to help someone else. Unlike study 1, no differences were observed in physical symptoms or health behaviours, leading to study 3. Study 3 consisted of f 65 people, with either congenital or adult-onset neuromuscular disease, that were divided into a blessings or a control group. The gratitude intervention showed a positive affect as well as an increase in life satisfaction. It also improved people’s amount of sleep and quality, and the positive effects on well-being was noticed by their partners.

The findings of an increased sense of well-being and life satisfaction has been replicated by several other studies.

Here are a few things you can do to improve your well-being*:

  • Journal about things you are grateful for
  • If you aren’t the journaling type, the 5 minute journal might be for you
  • Think about someone for whom you are grateful
  • Write someone a letter/e-mail to whom you are grateful
  • Write thank you notes
  • Meditate on gratitude
  • Rather express sincere “thank you’s” opposed to a half ment thanks
  • If religious, pray about your gratitude


*Partially taken from: Bono G, McCullough ME. Positive responses to benefit and harm: bringing forgiveness and gratitude into cognitive therapy. J Cognit Psychother. 2006;20:147–158.

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