The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.
-attributed to William Penn
Some time ago, I went through some stuff. It wasn’t fun or happy or positive in any way. I was also incredibly depressed. It seemed like all I could do was think about all the horrible things that this stuff generated. I couldn’t see anything positive about my life, and I was slowly losing hope. Frankly, it sucked rocks. (It’s okay, you guys. I’m doing much better now*.)
Aside from being an English nerd (seriously, Epic-Level-English-Nerd here), I also tend to learn as much as possible about a thing. So, I turned to my trusty laptop (you can still surf the web while laying in bed), and googled phrases such as: ‘how to feel better,’ ‘I hate depression,’ ‘please make depression stop,’ and, my personal favorite: ‘eff you depression.’
In the millions of search results that splayed across my screen, I came across a study claiming that expressing gratitude each day makes for a happier life. [hyperlink: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Bartlett-Gratitude+ProsocialBehavior.pdf]
I know. I scoffed too.
Thus began my deep dive into gratitude. I resolved that each day my husband and I would sit down and write three things for which we are grateful. It didn’t matter what they were, but there had to be three things each day. It seemed like such a silly thing. How does writing down three things, which didn’t even take five minutes, make my life happier?
Husband: . . .
Me: Come on. It’s just three things. I’m grateful for you, and for the kids, and for the dogs.
Husband: . . .
Husband: . . .
Husband: eye roll
Me: I’m grateful for fresh air, and our porch, and water.
Husband: (reluctantly) I’m grateful for you and the dogs and animals
Me: I’m grateful for tea, and colors, and plants
Husband: [cannot be found]
Each day I sat down and wrote three things. Sometimes they were items of pride, such as when one of the kids accomplished a difficult task. Sometimes they were items very personal, such as being grateful for the fact that my brain continues to work even if it’s depressed.
After about three weeks, I noticed a change. I was starting to look for the positives in life rather than the negatives. Instead of complaining about a sink full of dirty dishes, I was now being grateful that we had a sink and dishes. Instead of being angry at all the laundry piling up, I was grateful that we had nice clothes to wear and the ability to wash our clothes in our own home.
Honestly, you guys, it worked. Just by focusing on positive things each day, I was able to see my life differently, which also allowed me to live a happier life.
A study (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf) published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology highlights this phenomenon. (And yes, I consider this a phenomenon – a miracle, a wonder, a marvel.) Researchers Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough created three studies to look closer at the effects of gratitude on daily life.
What is gratitude? Gratitude is appreciating someone or something that benefits our lives. Gratitude is known as a virtue by most religious traditions around the world is touted as a source of happiness and satisfaction in the popular press. Emmons and McCullough sought to answer if “an attitude of gratitude” is worth pursuing.
Spoiler Alert: The next section is a summary of the studies found in the academic paper Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, originally found in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf).
Subjective well-being literature (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripartite_model_of_subjective_well-being) studies the components of well-being which include assessments of life satisfaction by one’s life as well as emotions and moods (i.e., joy, frustration, excitement, and gratitude). Previous work has been published showing that gratitude, while highly related to positive emotions like optimism, joy, and harmony, is semantically different. To scientifically study gratitude, psychologists needed to prove that gratitude is separate from more general concepts such as “happiness.” Fortunately, this previous work shows that positive feelings and gratitude overlaps, the ideas and beliefs associated with gratitude is unique. (From The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography by Michael E. McCullough and Robert A. Emmons [https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/McCullough-GratefulDisposition.pdf].)
Now that the authors have proven gratitude as distinct from other positive emotions, Emmons and McCullough sought to prove that gratitude is not only related to well-being but that it caused well-being. To prove causality, gratitude needs to be manipulated – becoming an independent variable in the scientific study.
[A quick scientific study primer: In an experiment, there are two main components. One is the independent variable, which is the thing the researchers are studying. In this case, it is gratitude. Then there is the dependent variable, which is the result of the manipulation of the independent variable. This is what changes when the researchers control and manipulate the independent variable. In this case, it is what happens when we change the relationship to gratitude in the study.
A variable in research simply refers to a person, place, thing, or phenomenon that you are trying to measure in some way. The best way to understand the difference between an independent and dependent variable is by understanding the meaning of the words themselves. Consider this sentence: “The [independent variable] causes a change in [dependent variable] and it is not possible that [dependent variable] could cause a change in [independent variable].” By inserting the names of the variables in the sentence in the way that makes the most sense, this helps you identify each type of variable. In this study: “Gratitude causes a change in happiness. It is not possible that happiness could change gratitude.”
This is confusing for most university-level undergraduate students so don’t worry if you’re not on top of independent and dependent variables. When in doubt, remember the dependent variable depends on the changes made to the independent variable. We know what the changes are to the independent variable because we are making those changes. But we don’t know how the dependent variable will react. Therefore the dependent variable is the result we are studying. /end lesson]
Emmons and McCullough studied the causal effects of gratitude by creating a series of studies in which participants were randomly divided into separate groups (or conditions). The first group was asked to list things in their lives for which they are grateful. The second group was asked to list “hassles” (things that were bothersome or annoying). The third group did something unrelated or nothing at all. The third group became our control group, by which the other groups were measured (nothing in the third group was manipulated).
For the first study, 192 participants were asked to complete a report each week. The content of the report was determined by which group the participants were randomly assigned. The first group (the gratitude condition) was given the following instructions:
There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.
The second group (the hassle condition) was given these instructions:
Hassles are irritants – things that annoy or bother you. They occur in various domains of life, including relationships, work, school, housing, finances, health, and so forth. Think back over today and, on the lines below, list up to five hassles that occurred in your life.
The third group (the control group) had these instructions:
What were some of the events or circumstances that affected you in the past week? Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below the five events that had an impact on you.
[Note: The first group was asked to assess things for which they are grateful. The second group was asked to list things that were hassles. The third group was asked to list circumstances, but not told to list positive or negative events – just events.)
Participants were also asked to include ratings of mood, physical symptoms, reactions to social support, estimated time spent exercising, and two global life appraisal questions. In a rating grid, participants were asked to rate the extent to which they experienced each feeling. The 30 affect terms were as follows: interested, distressed, excited, alert, irritable, sad, stressed, ashamed, happy, grateful, tired, upset, strong, nervous, guilty, joyful, determined, thankful, calm, attentive, forgiving, hostile, energetic, hopeful, enthusiastic, active, afraid, proud, appreciative, and angry.
The researchers hoped to show that participants who received the gratitude manipulation would experience more positive and less negative emotions over the course of the study, thereby concluding that gratitude had caused these changes in their experience.
After taking the results of the first study, Emmons and McCullough designed the second study, which created a more intense intervention with a stronger manipulation.
Study 2 consisted of 157 participants. The instructions for the gratitude and hassles groups were identical to those used in Study 1. The third group was asked to use a downward social comparison (downward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to others who are worse off than ourselves. Such downward comparisons are often centered on making ourselves feel better about our abilities.). This group was created to appear to be positive on the surface but in reality, might lead to different outcomes than the gratitude focus. Instructions were as follows:
It is human nature to compare ourselves to others. We may be better off than others in some ways, and less fortunate than other people in other ways. Think about ways in which you are better off than others, things that you have that they don’t, and write these down in the spaces below.
After the results of the second study, Emmons and McCullough designed a third study where the participants suffered from either congenital or adult-onset NMDs (Neuromuscular Disease Clinic). Participants were assigned to two groups: group one was the gratitude condition used in Studies 1 and 2 and a control condition in which participants rated general feelings such as affect, well-being, and global appraisals.
The results of these three experiments showed found that people who listed people, things, or actions for which they are grateful (blessings) reported being happier than those who listed hassles. Participants in the gratitude group were also happier than those who did an unrelated task or nothing – although the happiness effect was greatest in comparison with those who listed hassles. It is noted that the researchers didn’t know how long the effects lasted and/or whether or not the participants continued listing things for which they were grateful.
(Beyond the effects on happiness, preliminary results show that gratitude may also have an effect on the length and restfulness sleep and on the amount that one exercises. These effects need more study as these were not the main concerns of the researchers, but the results were promising.)
So, what do the results of these studies mean? Well, just as I discovered when I listed things for which I was grateful, these feelings of gratitude lead to increased feelings of positive emotions and happiness. Gratitude is clearly positive and affects one’s life is a positive way; an “attitude of gratitude” is an attitude worth embracing.
One of the purposes of these experiments was to show that a relatively short and simple manipulation, such as listing three things each day for which you are grateful, has a significant effect on happiness and well-being. Consciously focusing on blessings (i.e., things for which you are grateful), benefits you emotionally and inter-personally. Charles Dickens said:
Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.
I know, you guys. I hear you. You simply cannot fit one more thing into your day. I get it. That’s why I’ve given you this handy-dandy (fillable-PDF) download to make listing things for which you are grateful as easy as possible. I challenge you to take five minutes once a day to write three things down. Five minutes, you guys. That’s all.
Try it for 21 days and let us know how it worked for you.
*Spoiler Alert: Aside from being grateful each and every day, I also worked with a psychologist and psychiatrist to help manage my depression. My strategies included medication, meditation, and mindfulness, among others. All these things were helpful for me. I highly encourage anyone who is feeling depressed or potentially suicidal to seek professional help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) phone number (available 24/7) is 1-800-273-8255.