“Stop and smell the roses” may be a cliché, but new research suggests it’s sound advice for finding satisfaction in life. A forthcoming study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences suggests that appreciating the meaningful things and people in our lives may play an even larger role in our overall happiness than previously thought.
In the study, Rutgers University psychology professor Nancy Fagley had nearly 250 undergraduates take a survey measuring their levels of appreciation, which Fagley defines as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something—an event, a behavior, an object—and feeling positive emotional connection to it.”
This is distinct from gratitude, Fagley says, which is a positive emotion directed toward a benefactor in response to receiving a gift of some sort, and is just one of several aspects of appreciation, according to Fagley. Indeed, in his book Thanks!, Robert Emmons, perhaps the leading scientific expert on gratitude, writes that gratitude isn’t just about acknowledging the goodness in one’s life but also “recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”
Fagley’s survey of appreciation zeroed in on eight aspects of it, including awe—or feeling a sense of connection to nature or life itself—and living in the present moment.
The students in Fagley’s study also took surveys to evaluate their levels of gratitude and overall life satisfaction, and completed a standard questionnaire measuring what researchers call the Big 5 personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Fagley wanted to see whether appreciation carries distinct benefits on its own, regardless of one’s personality or level of gratitude.
Though Fagley found that appreciation and gratitude both seem to be strongly connected to happiness, her results suggest that appreciation is twice as significant as gratitude in determining overall satisfaction with life.
Students’ personality traits were also important to predicting life satisfaction—in fact, they seemed to be more important than their age, gender or ethnicity. Some aspects of personality—like being less neurotic and more outgoing—were linked to greater life satisfaction, Fagley says. However, being high in appreciation was significantly related to high life satisfaction regardless of one’s personality.
Past research has considered appreciation to be a byproduct of gratitude and one’s personality. This study shows that appreciation plays a significant role in one’s quality of life, independent of one’s personality or gratitude level—a role even more significant than previously thought.
Fagley is still researching how best to practice appreciation on a day-to-day-basis, she says. But for starters, she suggests that people focus on and value what they have, spend time outdoors, and reflect on their blessings and relationships with others.
“The challenge in fostering appreciation,” she says, “is that we want to periodically reflect on the positive aspects of our lives, value our friends and family, relish and savor the good times—without the practice of reflection becoming a rote habit or something that is taken for granted.”