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Relationships, Resilience, and Wellbeing: The Science of Gratitude

Philip D. Adams
By Philip D. Adams

Have you ever noticed how some people are able to remain cheerful and upbeat, even amid extremely challenging times? Did you ever wonder how they do it?

Philosophers and religious leaders—and, more recently, psychologists—have extolled the virtue of gratitude as one of the keys to maintaining a positive outlook and living a happier life. In fact, a growing body of scientific research indicates that feeling and expressing gratitude may be associated with a range of physical, psychological, and social benefits.

What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude can be defined as the quality of being thankful. It is the propensity to recognize and show appreciation for kindness and good fortune through words and actions.

Robert A. Emmons, PhD, a leading expert in the science of gratitude, breaks it down into two components. The first is an affirmation of goodness. 

“We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received,” Emmons said in an article for Greater Good Magazine. “Gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.”1

We see this displayed each year on Thanksgiving Day, as millions of Americans get together with loved ones to count their blessings.

The second component Emmons cites is the recognition that the sources of goodness are outside of ourselves.

 "We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives,” Emmons said in the piece.1

In other words, we recognize not only what we’re thankful for, but also to whom (or to what) we are thankful.

Health Benefits of Gratitude

Research connecting gratitude and good health is emerging, with studies pointing to a strong correlation between the two. The effects of gratitude are quantifiable and sustainable.

Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury explored the neurological impacts of gratitude in her 2019 piece “The Neuroscience of Gratitude and Effects on the Brain”2 Chowdhury explains that physiological effects of gratitude start at the neurotransmitter level. When we express or receive gratitude, our brains release dopamine and serotonin, the chemical messengers responsible for making us “feel good,” she explains. They immediately enhance feelings of happiness, calm, focus, motivation, and contentment, thus providing the neurological rewards that reinforce life-affirming behavior, she continues. Practicing gratitude on an ongoing basis can help strengthen these neural pathways and create an enduring positive disposition within an individual, she says.

This can translate into better physical health in a number of ways. For example, it's common knowledge that sleep is one of the keys to good health. Inadequate sleep puts stress on the body and can lead to a host of unhealthy conditions. A clinical study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that grateful people tend to fall asleep faster, experience better quality sleep, and be less fatigued during the day.3

Other studies show a link between practicing gratitude and better heart health, lower blood pressure, and reduced systemic inflammation. While there’s much we still don’t know, Chowdhury says there is mounting evidence that gratitude is an important predictor of a healthy lifestyle.2

Emotional Resilience

Beyond one’s physical health, a grateful disposition builds our emotional resilience—what some refer to as “inner strength.” Many psychologists believe resilience is determined by a combination of several qualities, including honesty, humility, optimism, empathy, and patience. These qualities help us to combat stress and bounce back from adversity.

Research shows that gratitude is another such quality. It bolsters our emotional resilience by motivating us to focus on the positive things in life. At the same time, it helps fight off toxic emotions, such as envy, anxiety, jealousy, and resentment, by prompting us to turn our attention outward, rather than solely on ourselves.4

Social Benefits

Allen goes on to say that gratitude is also a crucial factor in forming and maintaining good personal relationships, in part because it inspires people to be more kind, helpful, and generous. A simple thank-you—given or received—can build rapport among acquaintances and make them more likely to seek a continuing relationship.4

Gratitude also reduces the onerous tendency toward social comparisons, according to Allen. Instead of becoming resentful of others, grateful people tend to acknowledge and appreciate the accomplishments of others. This leads to more opportunities to form quality relationships and encourages people to engage in behaviors that will prolong them.4

How to Practice Gratitude

Being thankful is often no more than a temporary response to a specific good, such as receiving a gift or avoiding adversity. For some people, however, gratitude is a way of life. Counting blessings and giving thanks is something they do on a regular basis, not just on certain occasions. Here are some steps you can take to cultivate a grateful disposition in yourself:

  1. Take nothing for granted. When we recognize that every day is a gift, the natural response is one of gratitude. Take a moment to reflect on the things in your life that sustain you: your health, your friendships, the beauty of nature, etc. You may not have to search very far to find reasons to be thankful.
  2. Savor the little things. Take the time to appreciate the common, everyday things that bring you surprise, joy, and appreciation for others. You don’t have to wait for special occasions or reserve your thanks for some major windfall. Simply thinking about a few good things in your day captures the spark of gratitude, activating its physiological and psychological benefits. This helps reinforce gratitude as a daily habit.
  3. Write it down. Committing ideas to paper can be an effective way to organize your thoughts. Whether you make a list of what you’re grateful for (and to whom), or keep a gratitude journal, the process of documenting your thankfulness can help you develop a grateful mindset.
  4. Speak the language of gratitude. Grateful people have a particular way of communicating that affirms the positive. Speaking in terms of gifts, good fortune, blessing, abundance, and the things that enrich your life can help you keep feelings of gratitude top-of-mind.
  5. Show gratitude to strangers. Expressing gratitude in your daily interactions, even for minor courtesies, activates those neurotransmitters and creates good feelings all around, if only for the moment. The more you experience those moments throughout your day, the brighter your days will become, and the more gratitude will become a natural tendency in your life that amplifies relationships, resilience, and wellbeing.

For working adults struggling to balance the demands of family, work, school, and other commitments, the ability to view one’s situation from a perspective of gratitude can create a deeper sense of contentment and provide emotional relief from the grind of daily life. As it turns out, it can be good for your health, too.

UMGC is grateful to its students, faculty, staff and partners for all they bring to the university.

1 Emmons, Robert. Why Gratitude Is Good. Greater Good Magazine. November 16, 2010.
2 Chowdhury, Madhuleena Roy. The Neuroscience of Gratitude and Effects on the Brain. April 9, 2019. 
3 Atkins, Susan, Joseph, Stephan, Lloyd, Joanna, Wood, Alex. Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 66 (2009) 43–48. September 2008.
4 Allan, Summer. The Science of Gratitude. Greater Good Magazine. March 5, 2018

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