Apart from being fairly plausible. if impressionistic, to say that gratitude is good for your health, there is some evidence that people who are grateful, and I mean consciously grateful, are better off in a number of ways. In this brief article, I explore connections between gratitude and happiness and look at some of the available evidence.Gratitude seems to influence our experience of happiness but if happiness is an emotion and emotions are experienced before feelings, how can this be? Maybe we are setting ourselves up for more happiness by enjoying improved resilience and positive outlook associated with keeping say, a gratitude journal, or simply embracing and taking in the good that life has to offer. Focusing our attention on the positive may just help our body’s responses to emotions. So, first things first! What is gratitude anyway?
Gratitude, what is it?
Because we are dealing with emotions, feelings, and sensations, it is not always easy deciding what is meant by the words we use. Abstract nouns, by definition, refer to states, emotions, ideas, feelings but not concrete things. The term; “grateful” comes from the Latin word “gratus”, meaning pleasing, agreeable, and thankful (see Links1 below). Gratitude, according to Robert Emmons can lead to “emotional prosperity” (Links 2).
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude does not just assist with feeling good, positive, or pleasant. It has proven health benefits also! Social skills and social experiences, physical wellbeing, as well as emotional wellness, are all improved by the practice of gratitude (Links 3). According to Emmons the benefits include: improved immune system, less tension in the body, lower blood pressure, better fitness discipline, improved sleep patterns are the physical benefits of the practice of gratitude. Positivity, sensory acuity, increased sense of joy, as well as a more positive future orientation are the psychological consequences of gratitude. Further, people who practice gratitude are more socially skilled in terms of being more helpful and compassionate and even more forgiving. Gratitude supports a more socially adventurous inclination, as well as less isolation.
The benefits of such emotional prosperity for sustaining happiness seem clear as the experience of gratitude supports a perspective that appreciates the value of things which would otherwise become familiar and taken for granted and therefore les enjoyable.
A gratitude journal, a happiness journal
The cultivation of a sense of gratitude is certainly one key element in supporting the positive emotion we call happiness. Keeping a happiness journal where we identify and record positive experiences for which we are grateful (a happiness journal – a gratitude journal) builds our resourcefulness in some surprising ways.
Such a journal may include references to experiences that were not necessarily gleeful, laugh a minute capers. The solving of problems and challenges day to day can be cause for feeling grateful for personal skills and resource. It is good to embrace a sense of gratitude for such skills. Acknowledging our skills, means we might be less likely to forget them when required in facing future trials. Skill amnesia is a key feature of anxiety. We forget that we have overcome challenges in the past, maybe even tougher ones than are operating now.
The journal structure choice is idiosyncratic, personal to your own preferred style, but commonly involves recording three or more things at end of day for which you feel happy or grateful about. This process encourages an external focus, say, perhaps noticing something or someone who made a positive impact in your day. For example, it could be a positive feeling experienced by lingering with a friend for a chat, or recalling some aspect of the natural world around you or asserting your rights rationally in some conflict situation.
The very practice of making such journal entries cultivates a sensitivity to other possible opportunities to repeat the experience in different contexts next day and the next day after that and so on. This gratitude reflex implies a focus on the positive. In other words, learned optimism! This in turn reflects an ‘external focus’ which is an antidote to worry and anxiety.
Keeping a happiness or gratitude journal can be as simple as scribbling a few sentences each night before sleep that capture your experiences of gratitude for that day. It may be associated with some ritual such as lighting a candle and entering a state of meditation where you trawl through your day selecting relevant grateful experiences or experiences for which you choose to feel grateful and in feeling grateful you experience happiness!
An argument that gratitude will be caused by happiness can be inverted. It seems that gratitude can cause happiness! Now, back to your journal!
Emotions feelings and sensations
Happiness is an emotion. Emotions come before feelings. In fact, feelings are consequences of the brain’s interpretation of emotions. Emotions are physical states caused by some stimuli such as threats (Links 4). I has been said there are just six emotions:
These emotions are said to be universal across all humans irrespective of culture or race (Links 5) although there is some debate about whether there are only four, or even seven. What is agreed is the emotions precede feelings within the human experience. Paul Eckman and others conducted the original research identifying these six universal human emotions. These basic emotions are said to be hardwired and arose from addressing the challenges faced in our early evolution. They support our survival according to Neel Burton (MD) (Links 6), and Eckman goes into more detail on the origin and functions of basic emotions (Links 7)
Unaware physical sensations
It has been said earlier that emotions happen before feelings. According to Debbie Hampton, emotions are said to be bio-chemical reactions in the body. Reactions to what? To stimuli such as threats from the environment. Emotional reactions are genetically coded to produce quick reactions to threat. The arousal caused by threat stimulates the release of neurotransmitters which facilitate memory of painful or traumatic experiences (Links 8). Of course the instinctive and subconscious emotions that arise cause feelings as more conscious meaning is made of the threat experience for example. The nature and even intensity of feelings are coloured by a number of factors; the meaning attributed to experience the early learned responses to uncertainties of life from the leadership. In other words the capacity of leadership to handle uncertainty (parents, older influencers, caregivers) all can influence the way meaning is made of experience. A child born to parents with an inability to cope, propensity for soothing with drugs, etc. may possess less resourcefulness in the face of challenge than a child born to parents who have positive expectations of life and experience. Coping is in part learned resourcefulness.
Baby’s two fears
A child is born with just two fears These fears are; being dropped (falling) and loud noises. The rest are all learned. And, if fears can be learned, they can usually be unlearned. And, if they can be unlearned there is a little more likelihood of happiness. As the child develops, even at still under 12 months old, they come to understand that items removed still exist even though they cannot be seen. Before this, when items were removed from a child’s field of vision they ceased to exist as far as the child’s awareness is concerned. With the new orientation to awareness that things removed are still existing there can be added discomforted associated with separation (Links 9).
Why does all this matter?
Very brief mentions of emotions leading to feelings, emotions causing bodily sensations and babies’ very early fears, might all seem a bit disconnected and confounding. Surely, if considering the condition we call happiness and how to get some more, we’d be better off dropping the discourse and getting to the punchline! Perhaps, but it is important to understand that a lot of our human experience is based in reactions to stimuli that are initially beyond our control. Our unconscious responses make consequences that it is useful to understand.
So, if emotions are automatic, instinctive, and subconscious, what can we actually do to make anything better? What can be done to secure this elusive butterfly of happiness? Emotions and feelings play a large role in our experience of happiness or, its absence from our lives.
The point here, and I believe it is a very important one, is that there are things we can do to manage our automatic responses and insert a ‘moment’s pause’ where we can act deliberately rather than mechanically. We can, in fact lead a more deliberate life. Debbie Hampton’s suggests “…we all have the power to change and direct our lives for the better. Understand your emotions and managing your feelings with conscious thinking” (Links 10).
A more deliberate life
We may have instinctive reactions to events that occur in life. In understanding these, we can observe ourselves and engage more control over whether we respond or simply react. We can deliberately choose a moment’s pause. As Victor Frankl allegedly stated; ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, there is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom’ (Links 11). While there may be little we can in fact do in the case of unconscious emotional arousal, we can manage our response and our feelings.
Gratitude helps happiness happen
If I ask my friends what would make happiness happen for them the predictable response would be about winning the lottery, doubling their salary, getting out of a stuck position at work, having a great time with a super sexy partner. I know, I need to get a better kind of friend. But, it turns out that from research evidence gratitude plays a huge part in making us happy! I know I mentioned this earlier but let’s look at some results.
- Gratitude helps expand your social circle
- Gratitude helps improve physical health
- Gratitude assists with psychological wellbeing
- Gratitude facilitates empathy and diminishes aggressive inclinations
- Gratitude improves the quality of sleep
- Gratitude improves self-concept
- Gratitude improves resilience.
The deliberate act of taking time to attend to the reasons to feel grateful for the good things in life can make us feel so much better in many ways. Studies have shown that grateful people fare better in the face of traumatic events (Links 14). An Indonesian earthquake which took the lives of over a thousand people and ruined over ten thousand homes was part of studies which led to the conclusion that the role of gratitude might be to promote post-traumatic growth rather than pre-traumatic resilience.
“Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some” (Charles Dickens; ‘A Christmas Carol’).
This chapter focused on gratitude and the power of a gratitude journal to cause many changes in personal wellbeing. We also looked at the relationship between feelings and emotions. We noted that babies emerge with only two ready-made fears, falling and loud noises. Any other fears an infant acquires are learned. If unresourceful fears (such as anxiety) are learned, then these can be unlearned. Of course, it is very sensible to be afraid of venomous snakes and spiders but not helpful to be afraid of leaving home to venture out in safe circumstances.
I have listed some of the many benefits of gratitude for general wellbeing and social integration. Overall, we can see that gratitude is more useful than simply feeling something pleasant on receiving a gift. Gratitude builds a much needed personal resource…resilience…and, of course, happiness.
2. Robert Emmons (PhD) on emotional prosperity: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/profile/robert_emmons
3. Robert Emmons on benefits of gratitude for wellbeing: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good/
4. Dr Antonio D’amasio, neurologist from Iowa University on emotions: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-our-emotions/
5. Paul Eckman’s 6 basic emotions are described very simply here: https://study.com/academy/lesson/ekmans-six-basic-emotions-list-definitions-quiz.html
6. Neel Burton (M.D.); ‘What are basic emotions?’ https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/hide-and-seek/201601/what-are-basic-emotions
7. Eckman provides a more detailed consideration of emotions here: https://www.paulekman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Basic-Emotions.pdf
9. Dr Brown on babies’ two original fears and more: https://www.parents.com/baby/development/intellectual/what-kids-are-scared-of-and-why/
10. Debbie Hampton’s blog link is here: https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/whats-the-difference-between-feelings-and-emotions/ and is informed by references to some of the work of Dr Antonio Damasio. Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He himself has a very interesting TED Talk on consciousness and the role of emotions. The link to that is here: https://www.ted.com/talks/antonio_damasio_the_quest_to_understand_consciousness#t-7520
11. While the content is, I believe valid, there appears to be some debate as to who is the original author of this “quote”. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/02/18/response/
12. Amy Moran has listed 7 proven consequences of gratitude in Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude
13. Gratitude and positive psychology by Claire Meade: http://positivepsychology.org.uk/gratitude/
14. July Lies, David Mellor, and Ryan Hong conducted research into some the earthquake survivors in Indonesia over two periods. Its an interesting article: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_giving_thanks_help_heal_from_trauma