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60 Second Idea, Blog, Bucknell, Psychology, Social Science

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude


“The pursuit of happiness” is a saying that is ingrained in Americans as one of the unalienable rights of man. Stemming from the United States Declaration of Independence, this term has been around our country for quite some time. What is this happiness that we are inclined to pursue and how do we generate it? Well, throughout this semester, I have been studying those questions, among many more, while completing my psychology independent study on Positive Psychology. This subject topic stems from the belief that psychology, which essentially studies human mind and its functions, place too much emphasis on the negative workings of the mind. Therefore, this new area of psychology was born to focus on how to model those who lead happy, successful lives. Thus, positive psychology seeks to make normal life more fulfilling.

Based on much of the research that I came into contact with over the semester, cultivating an attitude of gratitude is one of the easiest ways to become a happier individual. Gratitude is an interesting emotion, as it is not neurologically hardwired into our brain, yet the comparisons we innately make when cultivating gratitude help us be thankful for and satisfied with our position in life. The process of experiencing gratitude must intentionally be sought after, and, just like any learned skill, practicing gratitude allows one to experience the feeling easier.

(start at 3:30)

I would like to touch on two studies that show the amazing positive benefits that gratitude imparts upon those who practice it. In the first study, Michael McCullough, Robert Emmons, and Jo-Ann Tsang set out to simply test individuals on their levels of gratitude and other positive traits. In general, the studies found that higher gratitude correlated positively with elevated positive emotions, vitality, optimism, hope, and satisfaction with life. Higher gratitude also correlated positively with empathy, sharing, forgiving, and giving one’s time for the benefit of others. Those who scored higher in gratitude are less concerned with material goods, and they are more likely to engage in prayer and spiritual matters. Furthermore, gratitude was found to predict a significant variance in affect, well-being, prosociality, and spirituality after controlling for extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness.

Such a study shows the fantastic benefits that are associated with an individual’s high gratitude level. However, it does not show what came first, the gratitude level of the other positive traits. Thus, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough generated a study that randomly assigned individuals to a “gratitude journal,” in which they recorded all of the things they were grateful day, a “neutral journal,” in which they recorded the days events, or a “hassle journal,” in which they recorded their days hassles to assess whether one is able to gain positive traits simply by cultivating this attitude of gratitude. The authors found that in comparison to people who recorded either neutral or hassles in their journals, those who kept weekly gratitude journals were superior in terms of the amount of exercise undertaken, optimism about the upcoming week, and general feeling better about their lives. Furthermore, those who kept gratitude journals reported greater enthusiasm, alertness, and determination, and they were significantly more likely to make progress toward important goals pertaining to their health, interpersonal relationships, and academic performances. Furthermore, those in the gratitude condition were more likely to have helped another person.

Looking at these two studies, we can conclude that gratitude not only causes individuals to experience more positive emotions and generate more positive traits, but also that gratitude is not at a fixed level throughout one’s life. I have discovered further articles that continue to show that gratitude levels can be increased through exercises such as prayer, death reflection, or simply with a gratitude journal as shown above. Upon analyzing these phenomenal effects of cultivating an attitude of gratitude, I posit that reflecting on gratitude practices daily, we would be able to change the world for the better one person at a time. After all, gratitude has been shown to increase happiness, which increases smiling AND hugs (no empirical studies here), and physical activity, three topics of previous posts!

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About Derek

I am a senior at Bucknell University where I am double majoring in Management and Psychology.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

  1. What do you mean it is not neurologically hard-wired? Are some emotions? The journals is a fascinating study and experiment. Maybe next year we will do a gratitude blog…

    Posted by Jordi | April 25, 2012, 9:01 am
  2. To say not hard-wired followed by “innately” — ??? Innate is hard-wired, born in, isn’t it?

    Isn’t fear hard-wired? Well, the physical response that we label fear is hard-wired.

    Gratitude for me would be associated with pleasure. Whatever language you use, in 12 Step Programs
    they often say attitude of gratitude is a big part of recovery. What is the opposite? Attitude of entitlement?
    Resentment? These things are a big part of addiction and unhappiness.

    So, I agree that cultivating the attitude of gratitude is very important in individual happiness. I think of it as
    a teaching of many religions.

    Me

    This is why I don’t blog — time flies.

    Inalienable!!

    Posted by marionvb | April 25, 2012, 9:41 am
    • I probably could have worded the phrase better, but we innately make comparisons when we actively pursue the feeling of gratitude. By this, I mean that there is no stimulus that could be put in front of an individual to instill a feeling of gratitude, as there are for the flight or fight response. Instead, this is an emotion that our environment and culture promotes in us from an early age, a feeling that must be actively forged to become a habitual feeling. However, once we pursue gratitude, our mind inherently makes comparisons between our position and another’s either instilling in us the feeling of greed (I want what they have) or gratitude (I should be thankful for what I have that they do not).

      I also agree with your antonyms to gratitude. I have come across literature showing that materialism, greed, and entitlement all can be decreased by use of cultivating gratitude. In fact, in The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying: “the true antitode to greed is contentment.” He then goes on to define contentment as “to want and appreciate what we have,” which could not describe gratitude more.

      Posted by Derek | April 25, 2012, 10:35 am
  3. Gratification is a value my dad has often preached to me and has been vital to my upbringing. Unfortunately it’s a hard value to grasp and will take some time to master. I don’t think anyone can say they have truly mastered gratitude and everyone would certainly benefit from making an effort to more throroughly seek out gratitude.

    Posted by Patrick | April 25, 2012, 1:42 pm

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