In Research Review

The beauty in the design of the human psyche is worthy of wonder. The basis of the design is balance. Human thinking is balanced between two different systems, System 1 and System 2 from Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. The human nervous system comprised of a sympathetic and parasympatheic systems set to counter purposes. And it seems that the counter balance to selfishness, loneliness, entitlement, and anger is appreciation and gratitude.  Gratitude acts as soothing balm and counter balance to anger and resentment as one travels the ups and downs life offers.

The following is a summary of Chapter 24: Gratitude found in the Character Strengths & Virtues. This research review is part of a series looking at different aspects of character and virtues to explore a unifying theory of coaching. Gratitude plays a role in organizing social roles and exchange and is generally seen as something desirable to express and cultivate. Let’s start with looking at the definition of gratitude, some its defining characteristics, a little bit of theory, then exercises on how to cultivate more gratitude and its benefits. 

According to Fitzgerald, gratitude consists of a sense of appreciation for something, a sense of thankfulness toward the source, and a feeling to take reciprocal action (Fitzgerald, 1998). From this construct, gratitude is a social construct and expression of value being delivered from one person to another. Gratitude in this sense is personal gratitude. Maslow distinguishes another type of gratitude, he termed transpersonal. Gratitude in this sense is given to God, the cosmos, or a higher power (Maslow 1964). 

In studying the measures and aspects of gratitude, four useful distinctions can be made about the facets of gratitude. Those aspects are: 

  • Gratitude intensity. A measurement of the strength of the emotion felt. 
  • Gratitude frequency. How often one feels gratitude. 
  • Gratitude span. The scope and areas of ones life someone feels appreciation. 
  • Gratitude density. The number of people or attributes responsible for any one desired outcome. 

Those different measures are The Gratitude Questionnaire and Gratitude Adjective Checklist by McCullough, Emmons, and Tsang (2002) and The GRAT (Gratitude, Resentment, Appreciation Test) by Watkins et alteri (1998). 

Why Gratitude Matters:

  • Religious Theoretical Traditions. Feelings of gratitude and an exchange of appreciation for gifts is seen as a positive virtue. Gratitude also correlates to being religiously active and engaged in spirituality. Those who believe in God are generally more grateful than those who do not. And people who express gratitude are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering and being generous (McCollough et al., 2002). 
  • The Grateful Economy. Gratitude as a way of organizing economies made an entrance early in economic theory. Adam Smith in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments outlines the benefits of an economy based on mutual feelings of grateful and the exchange of money and energy that results rather than simply a utilitarian, transaction. Such as stance even plays out in looking at college student engagement and retention. If students feel that a college or university cares for them and actively wants to engage them in a long-term relationship, students are more likely to graduate and be committed to the university. [recent research added]
  • Living a Healthier and Longer Life. Expressing more gratitude is also linked with all sorts of positive physiological effects from increased parasympathetic activity (McCraty, Atkinson, Tiller, Rein, and Watkins, 1995) to living on average 7 years longer (Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen, 2001). 

How:

Gratitude seems to be one of the traits that can absolutely be honed by practice. Many of the interventions in gratitude, from writing in a gratitude journal for at least 5 minutes a day to working through explore a range of non-grateful to gratitude-filled perspectives of past experiences, share a few characteristics outlined here: 

  1. Conscious direction of thought to identify reasons to be grateful. The first step seems to simply be to ask or develop an awareness of something to be grateful for. The shift in consciousness mirrors many of the gratitude practices, such as prayer, found in religious traditions. 
  2. Reflection and deepening of appreciation. The duration of time one spends feeling grateful matters is one of the factors in the measurement of the strength of gratitude. 
  3. Developing a gratitude practice. Another element, frequency, makes a difference in reaping the benefits of gratitude. Many studies, from writing in a gratitude journal or engaging in deeper changes such as a self-help group such as AA, stress the importance of the repetitive nature and value of a gratitude practice (T. Miller, 1995). 
  4. Expressing and Moving Into Action. Giving back to others and expressing gratitude completes the full circle good feeling and benefits generated from feeling appreciation.

One of my favorite takeaways from the chapter are the excellent studies that show the benefits of cultivating gratitude. I love the study of Danner et al. study on gratitude and longevity. I also appreciated how gratitude weaves together aspects of the very personal relationship with the divine and the extremely public organization of society and economic interactions.

But perhaps my favorite takeaway is the confirmation that gratitude is a forward-feeding emotion. People who feel more grateful are more likely to express thanks and act in ways that prompt others to feel thankful as well. It’s a self-generating emotion. The real question is: how are you going to get the cycle going? 

References:

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Danner, D.D. Snowdon, D.A. & Friesen, W.V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813. 

Emmons, R.A., & Hill J. (2001). Words of gratitude for the mind, body, and soul. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press. 

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. 

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