Giving Thanks: How Gratitude Can Change Your Outlook-and Your Life

Susan Duma, Psy.D., MPH


We often think of being grateful during specific times of the year-Thanksgiving, birthdays, and other milestones in life. We focus on what we have, instead of what we don't have.

That gratitude helps keep us in the present moment, away from always looking, wishing, or reaching for the next thing in the hopes that it will make us happy.
However, gratitude is not the same as simply thinking positively. Data shows that when people feel grateful, they are not free of anxiety, tension, or unhappiness.

Rather, when faced with adversity, gratitude helps us take in the negative and the positive of a situation, recognize the big picture, and get less impeded by the obstacles. This is not easy. But it works.

Expressing Gratitude

Consider this study: Participants were asked to recall an unresolved past hurt, trauma, or victimization. The researchers then assigned them to one of three writing groups: neutral topics, the unpleasant event itself, or positive consequences from the unpleasant experience. They wrote for three sessions.

Researchers found that writing about the unresolved past hurt, trauma, or victimization from a "gratitude perspective" helped participants feel more resolution about the issue. They reported less negative emotional impact, and less intrusiveness of the memory compared to the other writing groups (Watkins, et al, 2008).


Want more? Gratitude can drive us to do more. Robert Emmons, PhD, is considered the leading scientific expert on gratitude. He and his colleagues found that people reached their goals more successfully when they consciously practiced gratitude.

They asked people to identify goals to work on over 10 weeks. The goals could be academic, spiritual, social, or health-related. They were then randomly assigned to different groups, one of which included to keep a gratitude journal and record five things, once a week, for which they were grateful.

Those who kept the journal exerted more effort toward those goals than those who did not keep a journal. Even more, the grateful group made 20% more progress toward their goals and reported striving harder toward their goals than the other group.

Proof in the Data

Still not convinced? How about this: In two different experiments, a mere expression of thanks more than doubled the likelihood that helpers would provide assistance again (in this case, review student cover letters and provide feedback).

A third experiment found that gratitude expressions, say from a manager or supervisor, made people feel socially valued and therefore increased pro-social behavior.
The study went something like this: University fund-raisers were divided randomly into two groups; one group made solicitation phone calls "as usual" and the other group got a pep talk from the director of annual giving before starting their calls. She conveyed how grateful she was for their efforts.

At the end of the day, those in the pep talk group made 50% more fundraising calls than the other group.

Practice Makes Perfect

Regardless of our current capacity for gratitude, we can cultivate even more. Want to practice? Try these tips:

1. Easy does it. Writing or reflecting each week may be more powerful than daily gratitude journaling. As humans, the more we do an activity, the more we can take it for granted.

2. Depth over breadth. Beginning gratitude practice may start by listing the concrete (woke up this morning) or abstract (love). With practice, try digging a bit deeper, elaborating a bit more on something for which you feel grateful.

3. Not just going through the motions. Connecting to the person, place, or thing you are grateful for is more effective than just jotting it down like a shopping list. You can try this by imagining the item that stirs gratitude, or saying aloud this ‘gift' you have now.

4. People. Focusing on who over what makes you grateful seems to have more of an impact.

5. Without then with. Thinking about what your life would be like without certain blessings may help create gratitude for present blessings-rather than just tallying what you have.

6. Pleasantly surprised? Gratitude for the unexpected or surprises can elicit higher levels of gratitude.

Want to learn more? Join me at the Raby Institute on May 28, 2014, from 5:30-6:30pm for a workshop on cultivating a true stance of gratitude. We'll learn where gratitude comes from, why it is so important, how to do it internally and externally, and how to return to it when we've strayed.

Grant, A.M. & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Peronality and Social Psychology, 98 (6), 946-955.

Watkins, P.C., Cruz, L., Holben, H., & Kolts, R. (2008). Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3 (2), 87-99.


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