The Virtuous Circle of Gratitude

“We believe that we have established a rather easily implemented strategy for improving one’s level of well-being,” write Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. “Our results provide some important findings that have not been reported in the empirical literature on happiness. There do appear to exist benefits to regularly focusing on one’s blessings.”

Using the dry and understated language of legitimate academic research, Emmons and McCullough demonstrated what poets, philosophers and the religions of the world have long known to be true. Thankfulness, counting your blessings, taking note of life’s simple pleasures – regardless of what you call it, approaching life with a spirit of gratitude has a real and deeply positive impact on our well-being.

Put more simply, we can now scientifically document that being thankful makes people happier and more resilient. It strengthens relationships, improves health and reduces stress.

Even more importantly, there is not merely a correlation between being grateful and a happier life. A causal relationship exists. Deliberately contemplating and valuing the positive things in your life has been shown to lead to higher levels of happiness and well-being.

These are just a few of the conclusions that Emmons and McCullough summarized their first extensive research on the subject in 2003, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. In the decade and a half since its original publication, their research at the University of California – Davis and the University of Miami, respectively, continues to turn the spiritual practice of counting one’s blessings into practical actions which have been scientifically demonstrated to have a positive effect on our health and well-being.

Emmons and McCullough conclude that gratitude has two primary benefits. First, it strengthens our social ties and the natural benefits that flow from them. Second, gratitude increases one’s sense of personal worth.

One of my favorite concepts about the power of gratitude is what Emmons and McCullough refer to as the “upward spiral” that results from counting one’s blessings. “The experience of gratitude, and the actions stimulated by it, build and strengthen social bonds and friendships,” write the researchers. “Moreover, encouraging people to focus on the benefits they have received from others leads them to feel loved and cared for by others. Therefore, gratitude appears to build friendships and other social bonds. These are social resources because, in times of need, these social bonds are wellsprings to be tapped for the provision of social support.”

The remarkable simplicity of this idea is perhaps exceeded only by the profoundness of its implications. When we deliberately pause to reflect on those people who have been kind to us, we tend to be generous with others in return. That creates a virtuous circle in which generosity begets gratitude, which then results in additional generous acts. This is how relationships and friendships are built. Those friendships then become a resource upon which we can rely when faced with challenges in life.

Further, gratitude is the natural reaction of someone being kind to us. Pondering gratitude makes us feel valued and loved. Ultimately, that helps us conclude that we have value and are worthy of love.

“Gratitude, thus, is a form of love,” write Emmons and McCullough, “a consequence of an already formed attachment as well as a precipitating condition for the formation of new affectional bonds.”

Since their original research, Emmons has gone on to found the Journal of Positive Psychology and is the author of several books on the science of gratitude. He is now considered the world’s leading scientific expert on psychology of gratitude. Emmons offers several simple practices that we can all adopt to help us strengthen our own sense of gratitude.

Be deliberate. Simply making a personal vow to count your blessings every day can have a profound impact on your outlook toward life. Emmons suggests that you post a sign next to your bed so that you ask yourself “what are you grateful for today?” Make a conscious decision to spend a few minutes every day thinking about the good things in your life.

Go through the motions. If we emphasize the physical actions and behaviors that are associated with gratitude, the emotional triggers will eventually follow. In other words, Emmons suggests you smile at the people you meet. Write a thank you note when someone is kind to you. Say “thank you” regularly. Even if we’re not feeling it 100 percent of the time, going through the motions helps develop the emotional response of being truly thankful.

Write it down. The first and perhaps most effective way Emmons recommends to become more grateful is to take a few minutes every night and jot down a few of the gifts, benefits, blessings and other good things that happened to you that day. It’s easy to identify the enormous events in our life for which we are thankful. Emmons suggests that you recall the moments of gratitude you felt throughout the ordinary activities of the day.

At the center of gratitude is humility. It is the recognition that we all are the beneficiaries of other people’s generosity. It might be direct and explicit, such as when a friend offers emotional support during a time of need. It also could be indirect and distant, as with the soldier who died on a battlefield long ago to protect the freedoms we now enjoy. Every day the world is filled with countless generous acts of goodness, love and kindness. I am so deeply grateful for that.

This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on November 6, 2016.

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