“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.
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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!