Adults who feel more gratitude are more likely to have increased feelings of well being; higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of depression and stress (e.g. McCullough et al., 2004).
Gratitude can be thought of as an affect, a behavior, or even a personality trait. It is defined as a feeling of appreciation attached to acknowledging a kind or helpful gesture. Dr. McCullough, at the University of Miami writes that gratitude results from two cognitive events: (1) that one has obtained a positive outcome and (2) that someone else is responsible for it (McCullough et al., 2002).
“Trait” gratitude is the disposition toward gratitude, or a life-long orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive. It has been found to broaden problem-solving strategies and undo the after-effects of negative emotions (see Froh, et al., 2011 for a review). Being grateful may also help to reinforce future positive social behavior and can lead to increased resilience when coping with tragedy or disaster.
Gratitude “…acts as a moral barometer, drawing attention to help received; a moral motivator, encouraging a prosocial response to help; and as a moral reinforcer, where the expression of gratitude makes the benefactor more likely to provide help in the future,” according to Alex Wood, Stephen Joseph, and Alex Linley in their article Gratitude – Parent of all virtues.
The adult research suggests that gratitude is related to healthy psychological and social functioning because if focuses people on self-improvement and helps them maintain and build strong, supportive social ties.
Is the same true for youth?
In the article “Measuring Gratitude in Youth: Assessing the Psychometric Properties of Adult Gratitude Scales in Children and Adolescents,” published in the journal Psychological Assessment, Dr. Jeffrey J. Froh writes that children and adolescents low in positive affect who wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude to someone, reported greater gratitude and positive affect at the 2 month follow up, when compared to subjects who simply wrote about daily activities. Dr. Froh is an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University and lead researcher of the study.
His team surveyed 1,035 students ages 14 to 19 and found that grateful students reported higher grades, more life satisfaction, better social integration and less envy and depression than their peers who were less thankful and more materialistic. Additionally, feelings of gratitude had a more powerful impact on the students’ lives overall than materialism.
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude. Dr. Emmons says to start with “gratitude light”, the term he uses for a technique he pioneered with Dr. McCullough. Subjects were instructed to write down five things for which they felt grateful. They were told to be brief — one sentence for each of the five things — and to write things down once a week. Compared to a control group, after two months of journaling, those writing the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. Subjects reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.