While you may have heard about the many benefits of gratitude, it can sometimes be intimidating, vulnerable, or awkward to thank someone directly—feelings that may discourage us from practicing it.
Certain people or personalities may struggle with the idea of gratitude, in particular. For instance, a 2017 study highlighted how those who value a sense of autonomy, independence, and uniqueness may find gratitude less beneficial and find it difficult to access the benefits of gratitude practices. And compared to women, men consistently struggle more with gratitude and saying “thanks,” expressing discomfort and feelings of weakness.
Despite these difficulties, the benefits of gratitude for health and well-being make it a worthwhile pursuit. Luckily, though we tend to assume gratitude is always directed at other people, a new paper found that we can feel gratitude simply for the moment. In other words, gratitude may exist in different forms and still retain similar benefits for our happiness, which means that it is accessible in all kinds of situations in life.
Through two studies, researchers set out to see if they could distinguish between “gratitude to” someone and “gratitude for” something. In the first study, over 100 undergraduates were randomly assigned to either write about something good they experienced as a result of what another person did, or write about something good they experienced that was not due to anything they or another person did.
They also read imaginary scenarios and rated how likely they would be to experience different emotions in them. These scenarios included “being at the beach” and “finding out you don’t have cancer”—positive moments that are unrelated to other people.
The second study was similar, except it also asked student participants about different motivations they had after a positive experience that didn’t involve other people.
Interestingly, participants reported being grateful both when they experienced something good thanks to another person and (though slightly less) when someone else wasn’t involved. Regardless of what form of goodness they encountered, they felt gratitude—and, in turn, they felt happier.
When people were experiencing a general feeling of gratitude (not toward a particular person), they also felt more spiritual, resourceful, and generous.
At the same time, there was some evidence of the potential downsides of reflecting on the help we receive from others. People who wrote about blessings from others also reported more obligation and embarrassment than those who wrote about life’s random blessings—although, in some cases, even gratitude toward no one came along with a sense of obligation and indebtedness.
It seems that a more general sense of gratitude for life can bring about some of the benefits we expect from typical gratitude to others—like being happy and generous, and wanting to help people. While there are many practices available to improve your gratitude, if you find yourself struggling, cultivating a general sense of gratitude for happy moments in your life may be a good place to start—even if you don’t end up saying “thanks” to anyone.