What Is Gratitude?

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What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude is a positive emotion that involves being thankful and appreciative and is associated with several mental and physical health benefits. When you experience gratitude, you feel grateful for something or someone in your life and respond with feelings of kindness, warmth, and other forms of generosity.

The word gratitude can have a number of different meanings depending on how others use it and in what context. 

“In general terms, gratitude stems from the recognition that something good happened to you, accompanied by an appraisal that someone, whether another individual or an impersonal source, such as nature or a divine entity, was responsible for it,” explain researchers Lúzie Fofonka Cunha, Lucia Campos Pellanda, and Caroline Tozzi Reppold in a 2019 article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

History of Gratitude

The subject is something that has interested religious scholars and philosophers since ancient times. Research on gratitude didn't take off until the 1950s, as psychologists and sociologists began to examine the impact that gratitude could have on individuals and groups. Since then, interest in the topic has grown considerably as the potential health benefits became increasingly apparent.

Signs of Gratitude

So what does gratitude look like? How do you know if you are experiencing a sense of gratitude? Expressing your appreciation and thanks for what you have can happen in a number of different ways. For example, it might entail:

  • Spending a few moments thinking about the things in your life that you are grateful for
  • Stopping to observe and acknowledge the beauty of wonder of something you encounter in your daily life
  • Being thankful for your health
  • Thanking someone for the positive influence they have in your life
  • Doing something kind for another person to show that you are grateful
  • Paying attention to the small things in your life that bring you joy and peace
  • Meditation or prayer focused on giving thanks

Gratitude is often a spontaneous emotion that you feel in the moment. Some people are naturally prone to experiencing it more often than others, but experts suggest that it is also something that you can cultivate and learn to practice more often.

Measuring Gratitude

You can evaluate your tendency to experience gratitude by asking yourself the following questions.

  • Do you feel like you have a lot to be thankful for in your life?
  • If you made a list of all the things you are grateful for, would that list be very long?
  • When you look at the world, can you find many things to be grateful for?
  • Do you feel like your appreciation for life and other people has grown stronger as you get older?
  • Do you frequently experience moments where you appreciate someone or something?
  • Do you appreciate a wide variety of people in your life?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, you probably have a strong sense of gratitude. If you answered no to many or all, you could take steps to bring more gratitude into your life.

Types of Gratitude

At times, we can categorize gratitude in three different ways:

  • As an affective trait, meaning that it is related to a person's general disposition. Some people naturally experience gratitude more frequently than others. However, research has not demonstrated a clear connection to any of the Big Five personality traits such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extroversion.
  • As a mood, which means it may fluctuate over time. People might experience periods where they feel more grateful in general, and at other times they may experience this less often.
  • As an emotion, which is a briefer feeling that people experience in the moment. People might have a particular experience that inspires feelings of gratitude.

How to Practice Gratitude

Developing a sense of gratitude isn't complex or challenging. It doesn't require any special tools or training. And the more you practice it, the better you will become and put yourself into a grateful state of mind. Here's how to do this:

  • Observe the moment: Take a second to focus on your experience and how you are feeling. Take stock of your senses and think about what is helping you cope. Are there people who have done something for you, or are there particular things helping you manage your stress, feel good about your life, or accomplish what you need to do? You may also find the practice of mindfulness, which focuses on becoming more aware of the present moment, a helpful tool.
  • Write it down: You might find it helpful to start a gratitude journal where you jot down a few things you are thankful for each day. Being able to look back on these observations can help when you are struggling to feel grateful.
  • Savor the moment: Give yourself time to really enjoy the moment. Focus on the experience and allow yourself to absorb those good feelings.
  • Create gratitude rituals: Pausing for a moment to appreciate something and giving thanks for it can help you feel a greater sense of gratitude. A meditation, prayer, or mantra are examples of rituals that can inspire a greater sense of gratitude.
  • Give thanks: Gratitude is all about recognizing and appreciating those people, things, moments, skills, or gifts that bring joy, peace, or comfort into our lives. Show your appreciation. You might thank a person to show you are thankful for them, or you might spend a moment simply mentally appreciating what you have.

Expressing your appreciation for others is an important component that can affect your interpersonal relationships, particularly those with your partner. People who are high in gratitude experience sharp declines in marital satisfaction when their partner does not express gratitude in return.

Showing your gratitude for those around you can help improve the quality and satisfaction of your relationships.

Impact of Gratitude

The practice of gratitude can have a significant positive impact on both physical and psychological health. Some of the benefits of gratitude that researchers have uncovered include:

  • Better sleep
  • Better immunity
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Decreased stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less anxiety and depression
  • Stronger relationships
  • Higher levels of optimism

Research also suggests that people who tend to be more grateful are also more likely to engage in other health-promoting behaviors, including exercising, following their doctor's recommendations, and sticking to a healthier lifestyle.

According to psychologist Robert Emmons, gratitude can have a transformative effect on people's lives for several reasons. Because it helps people focus on the present, it plays a role in magnifying positive emotions. He also suggests that it can help improve people's self-worth. When you acknowledge that there are people in the world who care about you and are looking out for your interests, it can help you recognize your value.

Robert Emmons, professor at UC Davis

Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret, and depression, which can destroy our happiness.

— Robert Emmons, professor at UC Davis

Tips for Developing Gratitude

Many different exercises and interventions have been shown to help people cultivate a stronger sense of gratitude in their day-to-day life. To develop your gratitude, you might want to:

  • Keep a gratitude journal: Spend a few minutes each day writing about something you are grateful for. This doesn’t need to be a long or complex process. Simply listing two or three items each day and focusing on experiencing gratitude for them can help. In one study, healthcare workers who wrote down “three good things” each day experienced decreased emotional exhaustion and depression and improved their work-life balance and overall happiness.
  • Reframe experiences: Another way to increase gratitude is to compare current situations to negative experiences in the past. Doing this not only allows you to see how your strengths helped carry you through those events, but it also helps you focus on the things you can be grateful for in the here and now.
  • Focus on your senses: Emmons suggests taking moments to focus on what you see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. This can help you gain a greater appreciation of the world around you and what it means to be alive.

Potential Pitfalls of Gratitude

While gratitude is generally viewed as having a host of wide-ranging benefits, there are situations where it may have some downsides. For example, if you view it as a situation that creates a debt, it may make you feel a sense of obligation that could potentially contribute to feelings of stress.

The pressure to feel grateful, particularly around certain times of the year such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, can also contribute to feelings of stress. 

And sometimes putting all your energy into feeling grateful can cause you to neglect things that actually do require some criticism. For example, if you are so focused on feeling grateful for your partner, you might overlook or accept certain behaviors that are harmful to your well-being. 

A Word From Verywell

However, it is important to remember that these potential pitfalls are relatively minor compared to the overwhelming benefits of practicing gratitude. You shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself, but making an effort to cultivate a sense of gratitude is something worth adding to your daily life.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."