In praise of gratitude

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publishing

The Thanksgiving holiday began, as its name implies, when the colonists gave thanks for surviving their first year in the New World and for a good harvest. Nearly 400 years later, we’re learning that the simple act of giving thanks is not just good for the community but may also be good for the brain and body.

The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia. Depending on the context it means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. In some ways, gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. It is an appreciation for all that one receives. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. By acknowledging the goodness in their lives, expressing gratitude often helps people recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. This can connect them to something larger—other people, nature, or a higher power.

In the relatively new field of positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently linked to greater happiness. Expressing gratitude helps people feel positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

We feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. We can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Fortunately, it’s a quality that anyone can cultivate.

Research on gratitude

Several small but intriguing studies offer glimpses of what gratitude can do for us.

In one interesting study, psychologists Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami (who have done much of the research on gratitude) asked participants to write a few sentences each week. One group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them. The third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about being grateful were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they had also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher, psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the effect of different positive psychology interventions among 411 volunteers. The biggest boost in happiness scores came when participants were asked to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to a person they had never properly thanked for his or her kindness. The surge in happiness was larger than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting a month.

Gratitude can improve relationships. One study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.

Gratitude has a place at work, too. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, researchers found that just by saying “thank you,” managers can motivate their team members to work harder.

Not all studies show such positive results. But the research suggests that some of these techniques are worth trying.

Cultivating gratitude

Although some people may be born with a gift for expressing gratitude, anyone can learn how to do it. And this mental state grows stronger with use and practice. Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude.

  • Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of his or her effect on your life. If this seems corny, then seize opportunities to go beyond a perfunctory thank you email — after having been invited to dinner or after spending time with a friend, write a heartfelt note. Every so often, write one to yourself.
  • Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank him or her.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Make a habit of writing down thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day. Sharing these thoughts with a loved one is even better.
  • Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and think about your blessings. Reflect on what went right or what you are grateful for. Sometimes it helps to pick a number — say three to five things — you will identify each week. Be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you.
  • Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude. If you pray, try to do so with intention — thinking carefully about what you are communicating through prayer rather than reciting the words automatically.
  • Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).

This article is adapted from the November 2011 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.


  1. Mark

    Thank you for this timely post on the value of gratitude. Mark

  2. Ayla

    Thank you for sharing this article again! It’s one of our favorites at 1THINGapp: a social gratitude journal that helps you focus on what you’re grateful for, thank people who are important to you, and contribute to a growing collection of shared gratitude, worldwide.

  3. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto

    Cultivating gratitude is a recent rediscovery of the scholars of Positive Psychology on human flourishing and happiness. We must not forget that the Buddhist philosophy and humanistic psychology had already noted the role of gratitude to a full life. We should be grateful to the scholars of the past and of the present moment for reward us with scientific evidence on one of the noblest human virtues. Thank you!

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