The Goodness of Gratitude

November 3, 2023

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The long-dead philosopher Cicero once said, “There is no quality I would rather have, and be thought to have, than gratitude. For it is not only the greatest virtue, but is the mother of all the rest.” Gratitude is when we are thankful and appreciate kindness, people, and the world around us. It goes beyond a quick emotion. When we get a thoughtful or meaningful gift, it makes us happy, but that feeling may only stay with us short term. The long-term nature of gratitude is what makes it powerful. Simple appreciation can change into a general mood, and with enough gratitude, our personality can change (hopefully for the better). If we live a life choosing gratitude, we feel happy when we get gifts, but also at smaller things. The long-term personality trait associated with gratitude can increase positive emotions, leave us satisfied, and may help decrease envy, anxiety, and depression.

Persistent personality traits are a neat thing. They affect our mood and emotional response to everyday things. Gratitude as a personality trait increases the intensity (amplitude) and duration of positive thankful emotions and makes it easier to feel thankful. It also increases the number of other people you feel thankful for (like being appreciative that your sister’s cousin’s best friend’s thrash metal band got a record deal). This happens because personality traits indicate that the brain has specific structures and wiring paths built over time. With gratitude, we can see that these changes are in a few key areas of the brain: those responsible for social bonding, perspective-taking, moral judgment and decision-making, and the reward system. They aren’t just emotional areas; they include intentional and calculated parts of the brain that help change our overall outlook. Overall, brain areas increased by gratitude are prosocial; they promote good social behaviors like friendship.

Being thankful is great for making friends and feeling good, but it may also have health benefits! Psychological effects include increased positive emotions, satisfaction, and spirituality as well as decreased indicators of depression, anxiety, and envy. Gratitude-filled people also tend to be more empathetic, forgiving, helpful, and supportive. This makes sense; recognizing good things focuses our attention on more good things. Thankfully, gratitude may also affect our physical health! Measuring gratitude is difficult, so take the following with a grain of salt. Beneficial biomarkers of health measured by people with high gratitude include improved inflammation, diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, and A1C (blood sugar). These are associated with some pretty serious conditions like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and the effects of diabetes. It is unclear how feeling thankful can cause all of these changes, but it may be due to eating and sleeping habits. Gratitude has been linked with lowering dysfunctional eating habits and with improving sleep quality. A good diet is always important, but a good night’s sleep may be even more important for gratitude. So this November, let’s all be thankful for the ability to feel thankful!

Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA

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Allen, S. (2018). The science of gratitude (pp. 1217948920-1544632649). Conshohocken, PA: John Templeton Foundation.

Boggiss, A. L., Consedine, N. S., Brenton-Peters, J. M., Hofman, P. L., & Serlachius, A. S. (2020). A systematic review of gratitude interventions: Effects on physical health and health behaviors. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 135, 110165.

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. A. (2002). The grateful disposition: a conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(1), 112.

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