The Gratitude Experiment

Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands. – Brother David Steindl-Rast

By Dr. Lauren Tober on Thursday April 8th, 2021

Being Grateful Reduces Stress and Increases Wellbeing

A simple gratitude practice need not take more than a minute or two each day, yet the effects are profound.

Robert Emmons, one of the world’s most prominent gratitude researchers and speakers has found that a short and simple gratitude practice has far-reaching effects on both our emotional and physical health.

In an early gratitude study, Emmons and McCullough asked hundreds of individuals to either record things they were grateful for, record hassles from their daily life or simply record any events or circumstances that had affected them (2003).

Shifting Focus

In a series of studies with hundreds of participants, they found that those who had been randomly assigned to the gratitude condition:

  • reported more happiness and joy,
  • experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness,
  • spent more time exercising,
  • were more optimistic and satisfied with their lives,
  • reported increased positive affect and decreased negative affect,
  • were more likely to offer emotional support to others,
  • felt an increased sense of connection with others, and
  • even slept more hours and with a better quality of sleep each night.

Not bad for a simple shift in focus!

Gratefulness makes us happyIt is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. Image: Marcos Paulo Prado

More recently, Rash, Matsuba and Prkachin (2011) found that grateful contemplation resulted in increased physiological coherence, suggesting increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response) and decreased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (the stress response). Their research indicated that being grateful reduces stress and increases wellbeing.

Counting Our Blessings is Good for Us

All the gratitude research to date has confirmed what we already know, that counting our blessings is good for us, and those around us. Nobody sums this research up better than Brother David Steindl-Rast, who says “we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

While the common way to induce gratitude in the research is to ask participants to keep a daily gratitude journal for thirty days, it is by no means the only way.

Positive Psychology guru Martin Seligman invited participants in an online study to write and hand-deliver a gratitude letter to someone who had been especially kind to them, but who they had never thanked properly (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). He found that participants were immediately happier and less depressed and that these gains were maintained for a month after the gratitude visit.

While scientific studies with large sample sizes are important to further our understanding of how to be happy and healthy, I believe that the best way to figure this out is to experiment on ourselves. We can do what researchers call an n=1 trial. Basically, we bring a researchers mind to our own response to a particular intervention.

I began my own n=1 gratitude experiment in 2012, taking photographs of things I was grateful for throughout the day for thirty days.

Dr Lauren ToberDr. Lauren Tober.

Capturing Gratitude

Having read the research, I was aware of the effects of gratitude on happiness and wellbeing, but I wasn’t prepared for such immediate and profound results. Almost immediately, I tuned into all that was wonderful in my life, and I found a deep sense of joy and contentment. And three years on, with an ongoing photographic gratitude practice, I can say that the gains have been maintained.

In this personal longitudinal study, what has been most profound is that not only have I felt happier and more connected to myself and others, but that I am able to ride the waves of the ups and downs of life with more grace and ease. My own n=1 experiment showed highly significant results indeed.

One important part of my personal gratitude experiment was sharing my photographs on social media and on my blog. I found as I did this that it enabled me not only to share my creativity and my blessings, but it also resulted in an incredibly supportive, authentic and happy gratitude community. As a result of this online community, Capturing Gratitude was born.

Capturing Gratitude has become a way for me to share my love of gratitude photography, and as a vehicle for others to try their own n=1 gratitude experiment. Capturing Gratitude is launching once again on World Gratitude Day and includes a free thirty Days of Gratitude eCourse and a free Gratitude Interviews eBook. Included in the course are links to gratitude measures, so if you would like to undertake your own gratitude experiment, you can complete the questionnaires before and after the thirty days of gratitude, and come to your own conclusions about the effectiveness of a gratitude practice on your life.

This article was originally published by Uplift


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