Gratitude has become a hot topic in recent years. Celebrities from Oprah to James Taylor to Ariana Huffington have promoted an “attitude of gratitude,” and gratitude journals, hashtags, and challenges have become immensely popular. Much of this enthusiasm has been fueled by research linking gratitude to happiness, health, and stronger relationships.
Yet there has been a backlash. Some critics and skeptics have charged that gratitude breeds self-satisfaction and acceptance of the status quo. Several articles, including a New York Times essay by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, have recently asserted that gratitude may be selfish and self-indulgent, prompting people to feel satisfied with where they are in life rather than pursuing bigger personal goals or working to help others. The author of a piece in the Harvard Crimson argued that gratitude can “act as a form of complacency” and that the indebtedness engendered by gratitude may “get in the way of progress.”
Does gratitude lead to complacency? Do all those benefits of gratitude come at a price—laziness, apathy, and the acceptance of inequities?
Based on research conducted over the past two decades, and recent findings from our lab at UC Riverside, we believe that the answer is no. In fact, we have found that gratitude is not just a pleasant, passive emotion but rather an activating, energizing force that may lead us to pursue our goals and become better, more socially engaged people.
Gratitude triggers self-improvement
For years, studies have been challenging the misconception that gratitude promotes self-satisfaction and acceptance of the status quo; these studies suggest that gratitude can motivate behaviors that ultimately lead to self-improvement and positive change.
For instance, a 2011 study by Robert Emmons and Anjali Mishra found that people feel motivated and energized when they experience gratitude, and that gratitude encourages them to make progress towards their goals. In this study, students were instructed to list the goals they wanted to accomplish within the next two months and were then randomly assigned either to count their blessings, to list their hassles, or to complete a neutral writing activity each week for 10 weeks. Those in the gratitude group reported making relatively more progress towards their goals. In addition, a 2009 study led by Nathaniel Lambert suggests that gratitude leads people to believe they deserve positive outcomes for themselves and are capable of achieving them.
Indeed, gratitude has been linked with success and achievement in multiple life domains, including health and academics. In a 2003 study by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, participants who counted their blessings reported fewer physical symptoms of illness and spent up to 1.5 more hours exercising each week. In addition, grateful students tend to have higher GPAs, participate in more extra-curricular activities, and have a stronger desire to contribute to society. Importantly, gratitude has also been linked with less risky behaviors in adolescents, including decreased substance use and less risky sexual behaviors. These findings suggest that gratitude may motivate people to engage in better, healthier activities that may contribute to their success.
Gratitude also inspires us to perform kind acts for others. For example, in a 2006 study led by Monica Bartlett and David DeSteno, people induced to feel grateful—by receiving help from someone else—later exerted more effort to help their benefactors than did people either induced to feel amused or not induced to feel any emotion at all. Interestingly, people induced to feel grateful were also more likely to help complete strangers! These findings suggest that feeling grateful not only prompts people to want to pay their benefactor back directly but also to “pay it forward” by helping others. Gratitude, therefore, motivates us not only to improve our own lot in life but also the circumstances of the people around us.
Together, these findings suggest that gratitude is a motivating emotion that spurs an individual to action. However, little research has directly explored precisely how gratitude might motivate us. Why does gratitude inspire positive action rather than breed complacency?
Recently we set out to answer that question. Building on prior work, we wanted more concrete evidence for how and why gratitude impels people to make positive changes in their lives and in the world around them.
We identified four distinct pathways through which expressing gratitude can motivate people to improve themselves and their communities.
We believe that feeling grateful compels us to reflect on our relationships and leads us to feel closer and more connected to others. Importantly, this increased closeness helps motivate and sustain our efforts at self-improvement.
Supporting these ideas, we found evidence that people experience greater feelings of closeness and connectedness to others when they perform one of two different gratitude activities (recalling a grateful experience or writing a letter of gratitude) than when they recall a time when they felt relief or list what they did the previous week.
In addition, we did a study with 9th and 10th grade students and found that students who expressed gratitude to parents, teachers, or coaches felt closer and more connected to them, which then increased their desire to improve themselves, as well as their confidence and competence in working toward this self-improvement.
Why might this be the case? Think about it this way: By strengthening our social bonds, gratitude rewards us with a strong network of support and encouragement, thus leading us to feel that we are capable of tackling big challenges. For example, a woman may feel grateful to a friend who helped her recover from an illness. This may make her feel closer and more connected to this person, as well as prompt her to want to eat healthier and exercise more to prove to her friend that the time she spent helping her get better was not wasted. This feeling of connectedness may also remind the woman that people care about her and want her to be healthy.
Feeling close and connected to others may motivate us to improve ourselves and become better people because we want to prove that we are worthy of our relationships and because we feel encouraged, supported, and inspired by the people in our lives.
“Elevation” is scientists’ name for the uplifting feeling we get when we see people performing great acts of kindness; it is associated with a warmth in one’s chest and feeling moved to be a better person. Importantly, feeling elevated inspires people to be more generous, perhaps to emulate the moral acts of others.
We believe that gratitude makes people feel elevated—which then bolsters their motivation and effort towards self-improvement.
Notably, we have found evidence for this idea among both undergraduates and working adults. In one six-week study, we prompted undergraduates either to write a letter of gratitude each week to someone who did something kind for them or to list their daily activities. All of the students were then instructed to do acts of kindness for others as a self-improvement activity. Students who expressed gratitude reported feeling more elevated—and these feelings of elevation were linked with exerting more effort on their kind acts for others. Therefore, elevation may be one way that expressing gratitude can motivate students to try harder to be a better, kinder person.
In a similar four-week study, we prompted corporate employees to write weekly gratitude letters to someone who either helped them in general, helped them with their work, or helped them with their health. These employees were then encouraged to try to improve themselves by either becoming kinder, excelling at work, or improving their health. Employees in a fourth group were instructed only to list their daily activities each week and focus on general self-improvement. All employees had the freedom to choose which steps they took to improve themselves.
Notably, relative to employees who only listed their daily activities each week, employees who wrote any of the three types of gratitude letters felt moved, uplifted, and inspired to be better people—which then increased their productivity at work and boosted their sense of autonomy at the end of the study. These findings suggest that elevation—that is, feeling inspired and uplifted—may motivate us not only to become healthier, more generous people but also better, more productive workers.
We believe that gratitude spurs us to become more humble because expressing gratitude takes the focus off of ourselves and forces us to recognize that our successes are due, at least in part, to the actions of other people.
Sure enough, our lab has found evidence that gratitude promotes more frequent humble feelings. For example, in a 2014 study led by our colleague Elliott Kruse, participants were randomly assigned either to write a letter of gratitude or to write about what they did during the previous two hours. All participants then had to imagine someone was angry with them and describe their reaction to that person. Those in the gratitude condition wrote more humble responses—for example, they were more inclined to consider the other person’s point of view and were more likely to accept blame.
Because humility enables us to see clearly how others have supported us, it may encourage us to engage in positive behaviors, such as helping others and bettering ourselves, to pay back the people who have helped us along the way. For example, a student may feel humbled by all the time his math teacher spent encouraging him and making sure he understood how to solve math problems. This feeling of humility may motivate him to want to do better in school—such as by taking advantage of tutoring services or extra-curricular activities—to (once again) prove to himself and to his teacher that the time and energy spent on him was not misplaced.
Not all of the thoughts that accompany gratitude are pleasant; some may even be awkward and unsettling. Reflecting on how much people have helped us may lead us to feel obligated to repay them for their help, uncomfortable because we needed help in the first place, and guilty for not thanking them sooner. Research from our lab has found evidence that expressing gratitude leads to the simultaneous experience of both positive and negative emotions, including feeling both uplifted and indebted at the same time.
But these mixed feelings may help lead us to positive action. Indeed, in one study, we found that expressing gratitude led high school students to feel more indebted to the people who helped them—which then increased their motivation, competence, and confidence towards self-improvement.
This finding suggests that although they don’t feel pleasant, some negative emotions—particularly indebtedness—may be especially motivating to us, lighting a fire in our bellies to reciprocate the good that others have given us—and thus rid ourselves of the psychological debts we carry.
Taken together, then, the evidence strongly suggests that rather than leading us to relax, stagnate, and become complacent, gratitude often motivates us to strive for our goals and become better people.
Of course, the research in this area is still emerging. But from our results so far, we believe that the feelings of connectedness, elevation, humility, and indebtedness resulting from gratitude may then motivate us to put forth more effort towards school, work, our communities, and our relationships, perhaps even prompting us to strive for goals we would otherwise not have thought possible.
Gratitude may, therefore, have the power to do more than make us happy and motivate us to improve our own lives. It can inspire us to become more productive members of society and better citizens of the world.