Gratitude and Well-Being

by Philip C. Watkins and Dan Schiebe

Gratitude and Well-Being

Gratitude research was rare prior to the 21st century, but in recent years research on gratitude and its impact on well-being has flourished. One reason scientists are investigating gratitude more is that research has found gratitude is associated with subjective well-being, as we will describe below. 

We need to begin with a definition of gratitude. Gratitude may be defined and measured as both an emotional state and a personality trait. As an emotional state, “People experience the emotion of gratitude when they affirm that something good has happened to them, and they recognize that someone else is largely responsible for this benefit” (Watkins, 2014). As a personality trait, gratitude is the disposition or tendency to experience the gratitude more or less often than other people. Thus, people high in trait gratitude (i.e., highly grateful people), experience gratitude easily and often, across a wide array of circumstances and benefactors.

Research has found that gratitude is important to subjective well-being. Gratitude is strongly related to a number of different indicators of subjective well-being. Grateful people tend to be happier, healthier, more resilient, more prosocial, and less narcissistic. In addition, more than 50 true experimental studies show that various interventions that increase gratitude actually increase subjective well-being. Indeed, research has shown that gratitude is one of the most important facets of the good life.

Because gratitude is a significant aspect of happiness, it is important to know how to promote gratitude and how it is sometimes prevented. Research has found, for example, that having a joyful disposition, a sense of meaning and purpose, and gratitude to God all encourage gratitude.  Research has also identified several emotions and behaviors that prevent the growth of gratitude.  For example, cynicism, narcissism, and envy predict declines in gratitude over time. Because cynicism and narcissism appear to support each other, they might act in a vicious cycle that is particularly harmful to the development of gratitude.

Because gratitude is important to human flourishing, researchers are now examining the question of how does gratitude promote subjective well-being? Gratitude probably promotes happiness through cognitive processes and social processes. Gratitude may promote happiness by encouraging particular cognitive habits (habitual ways of thinking). For example, several studies have found that grateful recounting (counting one’s blessings) increases happiness, not only during the grateful recounting period, but even later. This suggests that recalling blessings in a grateful way might “train your brain” to notice and appreciate the good in your life. Another way that gratitude might promote happiness is by enhancing meaning in one’s life. Happy people tend to view their lives as meaningful. Our research has found that gratitude enhances a person’s sense of purpose and meaning in life. The disposition of gratitude also seems to be related to what psychologists call a positive social interpretation bias. In other words, grateful people tend to interpret the actions of others in a benevolent manner. They tend to see people as supportive and having basically good intentions, which probably enhances their emotional well-being.

Research also has shown that experiencing and expressing gratitude can enhance people’s relationships. When people experience gratitude, they interpret the actions of others in a positive way and they want to help others — particularly the people to whom they feel grateful. Indeed, studies have shown that gratitude promotes helping behavior even when it is costly. Research has shown that gratitude promotes social connection, social inclusion, cooperation, and relationship satisfaction. Studies have also found that gratitude leads people to commit to relationships and maintain them. Finally, gratitude promotes trust, a critical component of healthy relationships.

Research also shows that expressing our gratitude is important to our social bonds; we especially like grateful people (and particularly dislike those who are ungrateful). Moreover, studies have found an upward spiral between experiencing and expressing gratitude in relationships. When we feel grateful for something our partner has done for us, we are more likely to do something good for him or her – something that will likely improve our relationship with him or her. When our partner sees this kindness from us, he or she experiences gratitude and is then more likely to express  gratitude back, in terms of relationship enhancing behaviors, and so on. This upward spiral of experiencing and expressing gratitude may be particularly important in intimate relationships. In short, gratitude has many social advantages. In the words of gratitude researcher Sara Algoe, gratitude helps one find new relationships, remind one of current relationships, and bind one to current relationships. Thus, one way that gratitude promotes happiness is by encouraging healthy relationships.

Research clearly shows that gratitude is important to happiness and that gratitude may promote happiness by encouraging healthy thinking and healthy relationships. Gratitude also amplifies the good in one’s life. Just as an amplifier turns up the volume of sound going into a microphone, so too gratitude turns up the volume of the good in one’s life. Just as a magnifying glass magnifies the text it is focused on, so too gratitude psychologically magnifies the good it is focused on. As Dietrich Bonhoffer concluded, "In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is with gratitude that life becomes rich."

Philip Watkins, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Eastern Washington University and conducts research on gratitude and joy. Daniel Schiebe is a graduate student in psychology at Eastern Washington University.

Suggested Reading

Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6, 455-469.

Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior: Helping When It Costs You. Psychological Science, 17, 319-325.

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

Solom, S., Watkins, P. C., McCurrach, D., & Scheibe, D.  (2017). Thieves of thankfulness: Traits that inhibit gratitude. Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 120-129.

Watkins, P. C. (2014). Gratitude and the good life: Toward a psychology of appreciation. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Watkins, P. C., & Schiebe, D. (2018). Gratitude. In J. Maddux (Ed), Subjective well-being and life satisfaction. New York: Psychology Press.

Watkins, P. C., Uhder, J., & Pichinevskiy, S. (2015). Grateful recounting enhances subjective well-being: The importance of grateful processing. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 91-98.

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