Gratitude is one of the first things we learn as a child when we are taught to say ‘thank you’after receiving help or a gift, when our parents tell us to ‘count our blessings’, when we give thanks before each meal, or express thankfulness during bedtime prayers.
Gratitude plays a significant role in our lives but its presence can be taken for granted, and its power is often overlooked.
“A variety of past work, theoretically, suggests that gratitude might be an important component to happiness, subjective wellbeing, and having positive social relationships,” Dr Lisa Williams, a Lecturer from the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales, says. “What emotion researchers have found in the past ten or fifteen years is that’s the case across a variety of domains, so in romantic relationships, in friendships, for individuals who have been diagnosed with significant medical ailments.”
Audio – Dr Lisa Williams explains the role of gratitude and its influence on behaviour
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Dr Williams’ research focuses on the role of positive social emotions, such as gratitude, and how it influences our behaviour across three relationship spheres – intrapersonal, interpersonal and intergroup.
At the intrapersonal level, research suggests that gratitude can increase our happiness and satisfaction and have a positive impact on our health. Early indications show that gratitude can have significant health benefits; strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve sleep.
“Gratitude appears to be a resource that leads to more wellbeing,” Dr Williams says. For example, studies involving veterans returning from war or cancer patients, show that “having a sense of gratitude for the things in their lives or the experiences that they’ve had, those positive experiences, appears to contribute to more positive outcomes.” These outcomes may include the ability to integrate into society for veterans, or improved health and recovery experiences for patients.
Interpersonally, initial experiments conducted between strangers found that if gratitude was induced and one participant received a favour from another, the grateful participant would be more likely to return the favour to the person who granted it, and also do a favour for another person.
“Feeling gratitude in the moment makes you behave more prosocially towards your peers, whether or not it was the person who originally helped you,” Dr Williams says. “Individuals who are feeling grateful engage in more selfless acts.”
Gratitude can also be experienced at a group level. Dr Williams says emotion literature points towards a broad idea that the positive emotions we feel personally, can have an effect societally.
“So if we look at different community groups that maybe have conflict, if there is a favour given or time invested and a sense of gratitude is increased, we might expect that, as a group, the target of those behaviours will feel grateful and be more likely to engage intergroup,” Dr Williams explains.
Her current research looks at blood donation and the positive emotions that might contribute to that action, including gratitude.
“A sense of appreciation by the blood collection service, wherever it is in the world, increases the likelihood to donate,” she says, “So if you show up tomorrow to donate blood and you feel like the nurse is appreciative of your contribution, then you’re more likely to donate again. Similarly, the extent to which society is grateful towards the donation increases a sense of wanting to donate again.”
Audio - Dr Lisa Williams talks about the relationship between blood donations and gratitude
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While the benefits of gratitude are evident, there are times when we feel like there is nothing to be thankful for, or perhaps other priorities compete for our time and attention and gratitude is left by the wayside. Dr Lisa Williams says that there are activities we can engage in to cultivate a sense of gratitude in our daily lives.
Writing a daily gratitude list can keep our minds attuned to what we are thankful for. “I’ve done this myself and I tend to run our around four or five items on an average day,” Dr Williams says, “I think the challenge is to become a bit creative and think more deeply about the factors that are influencing your life, individuals who have had a positive impact or maybe who grant favours to you that you don’t particularly pay attention to.”
Similarly, a gratitude journal allows you to reflect on the things you are thankful for, and develop a habit of thinking about the day’s events from a place a gratitude. “Across that time, you experience gratitude more frequently, and to the extent that you experience gratitude more frequently, you experience the positive outcomes,” Dr Williams says.
Another way to cultivate gratitude in your life is to write someone a gratitude letter, expressing your thankfulness to someone in your life. “Research has shown that the most effective outcomes are achieved when you then deliver that letter in person and actually read it out loud to them,” Dr Williams says. “Many people have said that once they received a letter, they went on to write letters to others in their lives that they felt grateful for so it can have that kind of pay it forward effect as well.”
Practicing gratitude has the power to positively affect our lives, our relationships and our society – “All indications are that you’re better off with this emotion than without it.”