Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Express Gratitude – Not Because You'll Benefit From It, but Others Might

Insights + Opinion
Hospital workers applaud during a tribute to the essential health care workers at Hospital Universitario de Mostoles in Mostoles, Spain on March 27, 2020. Legan P. Mace / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

By Jennifer Cheavens and David Cregg

The world is currently in the midst of a pandemic where the most useful thing many of us can do is stay at home and keep away from others. Schools, restaurants, office buildings and movie theaters are closed. Many people are feeling disoriented, disconnected and scared.


At this time of soaring infection rates, shortages of medical supplies and economic downturns, there are also examples of people looking for ways to express their gratitude to those on the front lines of fighting the epidemic. In many European countries, for example, people are expressing gratitude for the work of the medical staff by clapping from their balconies. Recently, this same practice has migrated to New York City.

As psychology researchers, we have been working to study the connection between gratitude and well-being.

Gratitude and Well-Being Connection

In 2013, psychologists Robert Emmons and Robin Stern explained gratitude as both appreciating the good things in life and recognizing that they come from someone else.

There is a strong correlation between gratitude and well-being. Researchers have found that individuals who report feeling and expressing gratitude more report a greater level of positive emotions such as happiness, optimism and joy.

At the same time, they have a lower level of negative emotions such as anger, distress, depression and shame. They also report a higher level of life satisfaction.

Furthermore, grateful individuals report a greater sense of purpose in life, more forgiveness and better quality of relationships, and they even seem to sleep better.

In short, grateful individuals seem to have more of the ingredients needed to thrive and flourish.

There are several plausible explanations for the apparent connection between gratitude and well-being. It may be that gratitude serves as a positive lens through which to view the world.

For example, grateful individuals may be inclined to see the good in people and situations, which may result in a more compassionate and less critical view of others and themselves.

Grateful individuals may also be naturally prone to forming mutually supportive relationships. When someone expresses gratitude, the recipient is more likely to connect with that person and to invest in that relationship in the future.

Gratitude Exercises Have Weak Effects

However, there is one important caveat to this research. It shows that gratitude is correlated with well-being, but it does not prove that expressing gratitude actually improves well-being.

Psychologists have conducted a number of experiments to see if giving thanks leads to greater well-being. For example, individuals may be asked to perform gratitude exercises at home and then report on their well-being afterward. These exercises include writing a thank-you letter or keeping a journal of things one is thankful for.

Several review papers over the past four years, including our recent paper, indicate that these gratitude exercises have fairly weak effects on well-being.

These review papers combine the findings from multiple different studies, which allows researchers to be more confident that the findings are consistent and can be trusted.

Researchers found that such gratitude exercises only increase happiness and life satisfaction a little bit. Similarly, the effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety was also small.

Express Gratitude to Help Others

We are not suggesting that expressing gratitude has no value. Rather, we argue that gratitude should not be thought of as a self-help tool to increase one's own happiness and well-being.

Instead, gratitude may be most valuable as a way of honoring and acknowledging someone else. Indeed, researchers have found that expressions of gratitude lead to improved relationships for both the one expressing gratitude and the recipient. The lead researcher of a 2010 study – psychologist Sara Algoe – concluded that for romantic relationships, gratitude worked like a "booster shot."

During this global pandemic, perhaps it is more important than ever to express gratitude to the important people in our lives – not just loved ones, but the countless public officials, health care professionals and others who are fighting on the front lines.

Jennifer Cheavens is an associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

David Cregg is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at The Ohio State University.

Disclosure statements: Jennifer Cheavens receives funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. She is also under contract with Cambridge University Press and receives compensation for editorial duties from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

David Cregg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter


Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.

Read More Show Less
A British Petroleum petrol station on March 10, 2017, in Ciudad Satelite, Naucalpan de Juarez municipality, Mexico State. The company will reportedly start to offer electric vehicle recharging stations at its retail gasoline stations. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP via Getty Images

BP, the energy giant that grew from oil and gas production, is taking its business in a new direction, announcing Tuesday that it will slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase its annual investment in low-carbon technology to $5 billion, a ten-fold increase over its current level, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
Recycled paper at the Northern Adelaide Waste Management Authority's recycling site piles up in Edinburgh, Australia, on April 17, 2019. Brenton Edwards / AFP / Getty Images

By Alex Thornton

The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.

Read More Show Less
President Trump displays his signature after signing The Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, 2020. The White House

The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.

Read More Show Less
The aftermath from the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, which killed 22 people in California's Sonoma and Napa counties. The National Guard / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor

In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.

Read More Show Less
The Wildlife from Space project uses satellite technology to identify, count and monitor species such as emperor penguins in Antarctica. British Antarctic Survey / YouTube

New satellite images have revealed 11 new throngs of emperor penguin colonies, lifting the number of known emperor penguin colonies by 20 percent and their total population by 5 to 10 percent, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Saturn's moon, Enceladus, is one of three moons that appear to contain subsurface oceans underneath an icy shell. Marc Van Norden / NASA / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Zulfikar Abbany

"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."

Read More Show Less