March 2017 Research Roundup: Got Gratitude? It does a body (and mind and relationship) good!

We all know how great if feels when someone expresses appreciation to us. But expressing gratitude isn’t only beneficial for the receiver; it does wonders for the giver, as well. The popular YouTube channel called ‘SoulPancake,’ has a series of videos they call the “The Science of Happiness” and we were struck by one video, in particular that demonstrates the impact that expressing gratitude can have on the person who is giving the appreciation. So if you want a bit of a “pick-me-up”, check out this video.

But, while we here at AWC are as big of fans as heart-warming videos as the next group of nerdy compassion researchers, we are also interested in science. Fortunately for us, what was demonstrated in the SoulPancake video is backed up by real, hard-core data. Below, we’ll explore what research reveals about the effects gratitude has on both the person practicing it and the recipient.


Counting Blessings not Burdens

Across three studies, the researchers found that gratitude helps people feel better and improves relationships. In Study 1, undergraduates were randomly assigned to either list 5 impactful events, hassles, or things they felt grateful for. After 10 weeks, students who listed what they were grateful for weekly were significantly better off, both physically and psychologically: they reported higher overall life quality, felt more optimistic, experienced fewer physical symptoms (e.g. headaches), and even exercised more. In Study 2, the researchers found that daily gratitude journaling similarly led undergraduates to feel more positively, and even led them to help others more. Finally, in Study 3, adults with a chronic neuromuscular condition either logged what they were grateful, or only completely the other daily survey measures. After three weeks, the adults who recounted what they were grateful for not only reported feeling more positive and optimistic, but also reported getting better sleep and feeling more connected to their spouse. Their spouse likewise reported that their partner felt happier. Together, these results suggest that gratitude may be an important component of wellbeing and helpfulness.

Take-away: It’s important to note that all gratitude journaling had a positive impact, though daily journaling had a greater impact than weekly journaling. Encouraging clients to cultivate gratitude (e.g. through meditation, prayer, journaling, etc.), ideally on a daily basis, could help to improve their quality of life in a wide variety of ways.

Read more: Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology84(2), 377-389.


Gratitude, Stress and Social Support

The authors explored whether gratitude could help people cope with the transition to college. Students completed survey measures in their first few weeks at the university, and then 3 months later. Statistical models revealed that initial levels of gratitude led students to later experience less depression and stress, and more social support. This relationship held true even when taking into consideration students’ personality traits, and initial levels of depression, stress and support. It’s important to note that no measures affected later levels of gratitude; lending support to the authors’ hypothesis that gratitude uniquely leads to improvements in depression, stress and levels of social support over time.

Take-away: Helping clients cultivate gratitude could help bolster their resilience, enabling them to better cope with challenging life events and transitions.

Read more: Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality42(4), 854-871.


Receiving Gratitude Forecasts Relationship Growth

This research explored how gratitude influences its recipient, as well as the trajectory of intimate relationships. Couples visited the research laboratory to complete videotaped interviews in which each partner took turns: i) discussing something nice that their partner had done for which they felt grateful; ii) disclosing a negative event; and iii) disclosing a positive event. After each interaction, the listener indicated how understood and validated they felt by their partner. Feeling validated/understood after disclosing positive and negative events was unrelated to relationship satisfaction. On the other hand, feeling validated/understood after the gratitude interaction predicted not only relationship satisfaction at the time, but also predicted relationship improvements six months later. In other words, a one-time gratitude exchange observed in the research laboratory predicted how well couples fared half a year later.

Take-away: This research highlights the importance of gratitude in the development of healthy intimate relationships. Encouraging clients to cultivate gratitude could not only help clients feel better themselves, but could also help them to improve their relationships. As we discussed in last month’s research roundup, social support is a key ingredient in both mental and physical health.

Read more: Algoe, S. B., Fredrickson, B. L., & Gable, S. L. (2013). The social functions of the emotion of gratitude via expression. Emotion13(4), 605-609.


Post written by Christina Chwyl and Jenna LeJeune

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