“Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness,” according to Harvard Health. In addition to making people generally feel better, it is also associated with better physical health, resilience, and stronger relationships”

Harvard Health, 2021

Understanding the science of gratitude can help you be more grateful and ultimately, happier.

So What is Gratitude?

Gratitude can be regarded as an emotion, a mood, or even a disposition. As an emotion, An emotion is an acute, temporary feeling in response to an event. Moods, by contrast, are daily fluctuations in affect. A grateful mood marked by whether you feel grateful on any given day, or roughly equal time period. A disposition, or state, of gratitude is a prolonged tendency to experience gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).

These three work in harmony. As you experience the emotion of gratitude, it will change your mood. String more grateful moods together and it will instill in you a stronger disposition toward gratitude.

The great news is that you have control over your emotions, which means you can practice skills that will help you experience the emotion of gratitude more often (Seligman, 2009).

Humans evolved to have a propensity for gratitude, so you are already equipped to develop the skills that lead to it.

Since gratitude leads to goodwill toward others, it was central in promoting cooperation among early humans, scientists hypothesize (Allen, 2018). Moreover, being grateful feels good. Displaying gratitude often results in kind acts from your fellow humans. When others are kind to you, or you work together, the happiness chemical oxytocin is released causing you to enjoy it.

Emotional skills are similar to any other in that you can learn them and enhance them.
Here are three things that have demonstrated evidence of improving gratitude skills and increasing its positive effects.

Write in a Gratitude Journal

Writing has been proven to help regulate emotions (Suhr, et al, 2017). Putting the things you are grateful for causes you to think deeply about good things in your life. This raises optimism and makes it easier to do by habit.

One study concluded that participants who wrote in a gratitude journal experienced more positive feelings toward others (Karns, et al, 2017). The findings strengthen the argument that gratitude leads to prosocial behavior and cooperation at the social level.
Even if you don’t habitually write in a journal, you can write a letter of gratitude. The effects will still be pronounced, if less permanent.

Say Thank You

Envy is the enemy of gratitude. Studies have shown that simple gratitude exercises can dispel envy, which can be a corrosive force (Mao, et al 2021).

You can write a thank you letter to someone or even verbally express it. Saying thank you is a way to remind yourself that there are good things around you– things to be thankful for.

Verbalizing gratitude also raises the positive emotions of the recipient and the giver. As an “other-praising” emotion, gratitude increases love between those expressing thanks and those receiving it (Algoe, et al, 2016).

Pray or Meditate

Prayer has been shown to increase gratitude in replicated studies (Lambert, et al 2009).
Even more, those who read aloud written lists of things they were grateful in a prayer-like fashion for had greater gains in positive affect. This suggests that the simple act of verbalizing it leads to a greater cognition or internalization. Indeed, speech has long been established as a vehicle for cognition. This is partly because language moves emotion to your prefrontal cortex– the logical part of your brain.

Related to prayer is meditation, which studies have shown has lots of mental wellbeing benefits (Campion, Jonathan & Rocco, Sharn, 2009). Recent studies have shown that gratitude meditation can specifically raise levels of feeling grateful.

Temporary feelings of gratitude can lead to prolonged grateful moods, which in turn can result in a more grateful disposition, or state.

The grateful disposition is little more than a general tendency to see the world and others with gratitude and be thankful for your experiences and relationships.

Knowing more about gratitude can help you develop and exercise it, leading to more happiness and mental wellbeing for you and those around you.

Works Cited

  • Algoe, Sara B., Laura E. Kurtz, and Nicole M. Hilaire. “Putting the “you” in “thank you” examining other-praising behavior as the active relational ingredient in expressed gratitude.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 7, no. 7 (2016): 658-666.
  • Allen, S. 2018. The Science of Gratitude. John Templeton Foundation/ Greater Good Science Center.
  • Campion, Jonathan & Rocco, Sharn. (2009) Minding the Mind: The Effects and Potential of a School-Based Meditation Programme for Mental Health Promotion, Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 2:1, 47-55, DOI: 10.1080/1754730X.2009.9715697
  • Emmons, R. and McCullough, M. 2004. The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford University Press.
    Karns, C. M., Moore, W. E. I., & Mayr, U. (2017). The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11(December), 599.
  • Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Braithwaite, S. R., Graham, S. M., & Beach, S. R. H. (2009). Can prayer increase gratitude? Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1(3), 139–149. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016731
  • Mao, Y., Zhao, J., Xu, Y. and Xiang, Y. (2021), How gratitude inhibits envy: From the perspective of positive psychology. Psych J, 10: 384-392. https://doi.org/10.1002/pchj.413
  • Nelson, C. (2009). Appreciating gratitude: Can gratitude be used as a psychological intervention to improve individual well-being? Counselling Psychology Review, 24(3–4), 38–50.
  • Seligman, Martin E.P. 2009. What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Smith, J. A. (2013, November 20). Six habits of highly grateful people. Greater Good. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_habits_of_highly_grateful_people.
  • Suhr, M., Risch, A.K. and Wilz, G. (2017), Maintaining Mental Health Through Positive Writing: Effects of a Resource Diary on Depression and Emotion Regulation. J. Clin. Psychol., 73: 1586-1598.