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The Science of Gratitude

We’re constantly being told to stop and smell the roses … but does it actually do anything?

Andy Ritchie

Thank you for reading this article. We are truly grateful for your attention.

Sounds kind of fake, doesn’t it? Trust us, this writer at least means it.

While social media platforms are awash with vacuous memes and inspirational quotes about gratitude that make even the hardest stomachs turn (more on that later), you may be surprised to discover that expressing gratitude, keeping a gratitude diary, or incorporating a gratitude practice into your daily routine has measurable benefits. There’s a solid body of scientific research dating back to the turn of the millennium that suggests gratitude can:

  • Reduce blood pressure, stress and depression
  • Improve overall physical health
  • Improve overall psychological health, reducing toxic emotions like envy, resentment and regret
  • Enhance our ability to emphasize with others, and reduce aggression
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve self-esteem and mental resilience

So don’t be so quick to throw the gratitude baby out with the memefic bathwater. Science says it’s good for us, and here’s why.

A Brief History of Gratitude Science

At this point, it’s probably a worthwhile question to ask: What do we mean by “gratitude?”

Tracing back the etymology of the word, we find it comes from the Latin root gratus, meaning “pleasing, welcome, agreeable.”

Interestingly, gratus is also the etymological Ground Zero for such concepts as grace, gratuity, gratis, graciousness … all Quite Nice Things, we’re sure you’ll agree. In its root form, gwere means to “praise, to celebrate; to be in contact with the Divine.” Without too much of a mental leap, you can see where the relationship between gratitude and a connection to a higher power may originate, and the beginnings of a spiritual practice can emerge.

Latin lesson behind us, now it’s time for science. 

It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the scientific community, or at least a small number of keen researchers, began to show interest in the topic. Since then, gratitude research has skyrocketed. Between 1960 and 2000, there was a grand total of 20 papers published on the topic. That number doubled in the five years to 2005, totaled 150 by 2010, and today, over 300 studies have been published.

A great debt of, err, gratitude may be owed to two particularly interested scientists: Dr. Robert Emmons of The University of California, and Dr. Michael McCullough of UC San Diego. It is through their interest in the subject that we have much of the evidence to support the health benefits of gratitude today.

According to their research, gratitude has two components:

  • The acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life
  • Figuring out where the goodness came from

The third part, the action you take, is showing appreciation for that goodness. 

In dozens of studies, Emmons’ and McCullogh’s research has delivered evidence that “counting one’s blessings” can variously lead to improved psychological and physical functioning, that adults suffering from neuromuscular disease can become more optimistic through a practice of gratitude journaling, and that the positive effects of gratitude can begin as early as childhood.

On a neurological level, it has been suggested that cultivating a gratitude practice can boost levels of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the bloodstream—two neurotransmitters and one hormone that we all know have a role to play in a positive outlook and a happy disposition. As part of his multi-faceted approach to addressing depression, Alex Korb, Ph.D, says in his book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

“You can change dopamine and the dorsal striatum with exercise. You can boost serotonin with a massage. You can make decisions and set goals to activate the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. You can reduce amygdala activity with a hug and increase anterior cingulate activity with gratitude. You can enhance prefrontal norepinephrine with sleep.”

Put more simply by Dr Christine Carter at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, “Positive emotions reset the nervous system.”

How (and Why) Does Gratitude Make Us Feel Better?

It all comes down to our positive and negative recall biases

Nancy Davis Kho, author of 2019’s sleeper hit The Thank-You Project (in which she recalls the process of writing 50 letters of gratitude after turning 50, and offers up tips and tricks for the reader to do the same), explains:

“Negative recall bias is important,” she tells Trends w/ Benefits. “It triggers fight-or-flight, it reminds you to get your mask when somebody’s coughing nearby, it tells you not to buy the dented can off the store shelf … it’s protective, we need it.

“But the problem is when you wake up stuck in your negative recall bias, and all you’re doing is scanning your environment for what’s wrong, what’s dangerous, what could hurt me?

“What researchers [at the Greater Good Science Center] found is that the most effective way to mitigate the negative recall bias loop is not by telling yourself to not worry; don’t try to talk yourself out of something legitimate. Instead, cultivate your positive recall bias. Which is to say, look for what’s good.” 

Interestingly, as Davis Kho’s weekly gratitude letters built up throughout her project, she realized that the benefits don’t just come from writing the letter itself. Even just thinking about what you’re grateful for, it seems, gets the process moving.

“One of the things I think that’s amazing about this practice, it’s that the benefits don’t just come from writing a letter,” Davis Kho continues. “You’re already working on them, you’re already rewiring your brain to be better and more efficient at looking for positive things by just thinking about it.”

Meanwhile, author, meditation teacher and host of The Astral Hustle podcast, Cory Allen, offers a simple reason why gratitude works.

“First off, it’s near impossible to hold two conflicting emotions at once,” he begins. “It’s very difficult to be super angry and super happy at the same time. Building in gratitude is very valuable, because it naturally aligns your perception and grounds you in a perspective of feeling good and positive, which leads you to being more optimistic, making compassionate choices, and so forth. 

“It’s a way to bring yourself out of the ether of wanting and desire. We’re designed to always be looking for the next thing, looking for something that’s better, what might improve our lives. There’s a giant, capitalistic marketing machine always telling you that you need to get this or that, in order to be whole or feel satisfied. 

“Tuning into gratitude, you can be appreciative for not all of the material nonsense that flows in and out of our lives, but just the fact that you are here at all. The fact that you have that chance; the odds are a trillion-to-one that over the course of billions of years of the universe expanding since The Big Bang, that there happened to be this little wiggle of awareness that arose inside of this meat vessel, which you get to be, for a very brief period of time. The fact that we’re aware of that, makes it all that much more powerful. 

“Tuning into that can bring an individual closer to the present moment. It makes you more available to enjoy the abundance around all of us, all of the time. And that’s a very helpful way to anchor yourself in life. Because there’s so much out there trying to pull you away from that.”

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity

Well it certainly sounds like if we all just take some time to show a little gratitude, that blissful utopia we’re searching for will be just around the corner. Maybe so. 

But is this a case of just faking it 'til you make it? We can all recite the things we’re grateful for, but if we’re not really feeling anything, are we doing it right?

“Someone [worried about that] needs to actually just think for a minute," says Cory Allen. "It sounds to me like that person is repeating a mantra, or saying an affirmation, like ‘I’m going to feel grateful today.’ Well that doesn’t work. ‘I’m going to jump 20 feet in the air today.’ I can say that all day long, it doesn’t work.

“Sit down and actually take a moment to stop and reflect on your life. Contemplate the fact that you are healthy (hopefully), that you have good things going for you, you have friends that support you and people you love, you have things that you derive meaning from, you’ve probably had some fun and interesting experiences in your life, and you’ve got the freedom or potential to make choices about your future.”

For Allen, gratitude has become a state of being that he constantly lives in, not an emotion or feeling he is trying to keep a hold of. 

“Those small things … I think about that with food all the time, when I’m eating anything. I think, man, this is great because it’s so much better than starving. Even having a sip of water, ‘Ahh yeah, that’s nice.’ The alternative to that really sucks. I don’t want to get numb to the fact that I just have water available all the time.

“But that’s something we do as people. We normalize the things that are actually amazing, and look for things to complain about.”

Dr. Emmons, meanwhile, is quick to debunk some myths and criticisms about gratitude, and how it might have a negative outcome on our day-to-day lives. For example: How in the living fuck can we be grateful in the most difficult of situations? Are kids stuck in Kyiv right now grateful? Should cancer patients be grateful? Can we really expect a grieving mother to be grateful?

“Roughly a decade ago, I asked people suffering from severe neuromuscular disorders to keep a gratitude journal over two weeks,” Dr. Emmons tells the Greater Good Science Center. “Given that much of their lives involved intense discomfort and visits to pain clinics, I wondered whether they’d be able to find anything to be grateful for. Yet not only did they find reasons to be grateful, but they also experienced significantly more positive emotions than a similar group that didn’t keep a gratitude journal. The gratitude group also felt more optimistic about the upcoming week, felt more connected to others (even though many of them lived alone), and reported getting more sleep each night—an important indicator of overall health and well-being.”

And then, of course, there’s toxic positivity. That endless feed of “This is fine” memes on your IG would like a word. Cory Allen regards toxic positivity as “being positive at the same time as denying your reality.” 

“[Toxic positivity] is not accepting truth and blanketing it over with just a catchphrase, or buzzword rf some type of positive statement.

“You are basically refusing to engage, accept a problem or situation, or embrace a tough moment, or someone else’s tough moment or struggle. Instead of opening up and working with that and acknowledging reality, you are shutting it down and basically making yourself numb to it by saying “Oh, things are going great!”

“I get why people do it. Life is hard and things suck sometimes. If you’re tired, or just withered down to a numb, you’re grinding and you have a lot of people counting on you, you get to that final blow where you just can’t take it, and you’re like ‘No no, this is fine.’’”

“It’s not healthy. If you’re at the end of your rope, it’s like the last move you have, before you just collapse. That’s the moment where self-delusion might be necessary, right? It’s a mechanism to deny yourself a connection with truth. It’s very damaging for them and other people.”

Toxic positivity is not just an abstract concept, though. Dr. Emmons and his team investigated this very notion in their 2016 paper, A Dark Side of Gratitude? Distinguishing between Beneficial Gratitude and its Harmful Impostors for the Positive Clinical Psychology of Gratitude and Well-Being.

Thank You for Reading

So, while the power (and definition) of gratitude may have been muddied in recent years, thanks in part to watered-down platitudes that clog our social media feeds, it’s hard to argue with the scientific evidence emerging that gratitude does have measurable benefits. What’s more interesting to this writer, though, is when speaking with people who can vouch for its positive effects, they want to spread their message like gospel, free-of-charge and to anyone who will listen.

So go ahead and try incorporating some gratitude into your life today. Because, really, what do you have to lose by being grateful?

Andy Ritchie is Trends w/ Benefits' editor. 

Read more: How a Mindfulness Practice Made me a Better Person

Read more: What “Support Your Local Sunset” Means to Me

Read more: 3 Ways to Get Better Sleep

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