It makes sense to feel gratitude about good health and happiness, and not just on Thanksgiving. But can gratitude itself—feeling or expressing it—enhance physical and emotional well-being? Gratitude may seem to be primarily a matter for spiritual advisers (“count your blessings”) or motivational speakers, but it has become the focus of scientific study in recent years, often stemming from related research on happiness, stress, optimism, and the health benefits of social support.
In the latest study, in the journal Personal Relationships (yes, there is such a peer-reviewed journal), researchers found that expressing and perceiving gratitude helps protect marriages from the adverse effects of conflicts. They interviewed 468 married people about the degree to which they felt appreciated by their spouse, their level of financial strain and the conflicts this caused, and their marriage quality. Spousal gratitude was found to be the best predictor of marital quality and seemed to have protective effects—that is, spouses who consistently perceived gratitude and appreciation from their partner were less likely to suffer the marital instability (as evidenced, for instance, by thoughts about divorce) that can result from marital stress and conflict. And there may be a positive “spillover effect,” as people who feel appreciated by their spouse are more likely to express their gratitude, leading to a feedback loop (what goes around, comes around) of more positive behaviors and attitudes.
Of course, some people are simply more grateful than others, whether by choice or disposition or due to their life experiences. But why, and to what effect? Can gratitude be cultivated, and should it be? Can simply expressing gratitude make people feel gratitude—and feel better? A major resource for research on these and other questions is the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It is undertaking a three-year, $5.6 million project called “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” to deepen the scientific understanding of the role of gratitude in health, personal and relational well-being, and human development. It also tries to promote “evidence-based practices of gratitude in medical, educational, and organizational settings.”
One of the Center's gratitude projects is the Digital Gratitude Journal (Thnx4.org), an online journal that allows users to record and share the things for which they’re grateful. Users can see how practicing gratitude affects their health and happiness, and these results will be made available to the research community, though individuals have the option to keep their data private.
See also: What Is the Science of Happiness?