When I was little, my mom told me a story about how she used to eat a lot of ice cream in the summertime with her three brothers. However, when it was time to share the package, the portions weren’t always equal: often my uncles tried to give a smaller portion of ice cream to my mother since she was the youngest and therefore “ate the least”. When I first heard this story at the age of 7, I said to my mother: “Well you should’ve been grateful for even getting ice cream in the first place!”
Gratitude: trait or emotion?
“[…] Highly grateful people may possess a worldview in which everything they have—and even life itself—is a gift.” –McCullough, Emmons & Tsang
Even though I clearly wasn’t the greatest pioneer of our time when it comes to equality, the child version of me might have manifested something called trait gratitude. According to psychology, people high in trait attitude feel grateful more often across a wider array of circumstances than those lower in gratitude. McCullough et al. (2002) have shown that trait gratitude is positively correlated with life satisfaction, optimism, happiness and hope. On the other hand, grateful people seem to have a biased lens when evaluating the effort put into the benefit by the benefactor. (Rash et al. 2011) Indeed, looking back at my mom’s story from an adult perspective, one could even say that there was an injustice going on!
However, psychology has been more focused on examining gratitude as an emotion. In this research branch, gratitude is defined as a pleasant emotion caused by an undeserved benefit. (Emmons & McCullough: 2004) It’s one of the empathetic emotions since one can’t be grateful without recognizing the effort that the benefit requires. According to Barbara Fredrickson (as cited in Emmons & McCullough: 2004), recognizing this effort causes prosocial behaviour: a grateful person has the urge to give back, either directly to the benefactor or to other people. Gratitude thus strengthens social bonds and can even link people to society. Likewise, gratitude enhances spirituality in cases where there are no ways to give back. This is often the case when feeling grateful for our planet or simply for being alive.
Gratitude exercises to boost your well-being
Meanwhile it would be useless to wait for undeserved benefits to fall on our way, there are four well-known gratitude interventions that anyone can adopt for an increased well-being. (Watkins: 2017) The first technique is called grateful recounting and it consists in listing around 5 things one’s grateful for, small or big. These gratitude lists help to recognize the good things in our lives and they also have a favourable effect on the quality of sleep. The second intervention is that of grateful reflection and it consists in reflecting upon the benefits or the beneficiaries in one’s life. Watkins’ study showed that even a 5-minute reflection significantly increases positive affect (that is, positive emotions and sensations). The third exercise on Watkins’ list is grateful expression which includes both verbal and behavioural expressions. One well-known way of doing this is through a gratitude visit: the participant first writes a gratitude letter to someone and then delivers it in person as a surprise. This habit has been proven to enhance emotional well-being and decrease depression symptoms in the short term. Last but not least comes grateful reappraisal which means finding the meaningful aspects of hard life situations, current or past. It’s about being grateful for the challenges that cause growth and give a new perspective to one’s life, even though this would happen in an unpleasant way.
“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Thus, gratitude is truly a joy superpower that can be used in times of need. When it occurs spontaneously, it makes us bond with the people around us, strengthening our relationships. On the other hand, conscious gratitude exercises help us to see the good in our daily lives, increasing our well-being and positive affect.
What was the last time you felt grateful? Tell us your story down below or share it in social media using the hashtag #joysuperpowers . Also, stay tuned for our Joy Superpowers podcast episode where we’ll explore gratitude with the gratitude guru Chris Schembra.