Gratitude and well-being.

Jason Brien.

     Gratitude is an emotion which can be experienced when we receive something that we didn’t expect, didn’t think that we deserved to receive (a gift, community support after a natural disaster), when people are unexpectedly kind to us (a random person compliments you, you have a positive relationship with another) or when we are truly able to recognise how lucky we are to be alive and how lucky we are to be surrounded by the beauty of all that exists alongside us.  

     Gratitude can be experienced temporarily or permanently (state vs trait). States are patterns of thinking, feeling, behaving, etc which are experienced/performed at single, concrete time points. States are temporary ways of being and are often provoked by situational factors. Traits are persistent and reoccurring emotions, thoughts, behaviours, etc which are relatively stable over time and are refereed to as personality manifestations – they are a fundamental part of you and your personality.

 What is state gratitude?

     An example of state gratitude is if you had a large sum of money in your expensive handbag or wallet and it was stolen by a thief on the train. A complete stranger manages to wrestle your bag from the thief and returns it to you complete with the large sum of money and without damage to the expensive bag. You feel overwhelmed with the emotion of gratitude and you thank the stranger profusely offering to give them a reward of some sort to repay them for their kind gesture.  

     Two years later when you are walking down the street, your inexpensive handbag or wallet (which      has no money in it) is stolen by a thief. A complete stranger wrestles your inexpensive handbag or wallet from the stranger and returns it to you demanding a reward before they hand it over. You mutter a simple “thanks”, refuse to give a reward, grab your handbag/wallet and quickly continue on your way. In this situation you didn’t experience the emotion of gratitude. A person with state gratitude is NOT consistent over time and is NOT consistent across situations.  

     State gratitude relies upon cognitive appraisal. Cognitive appraisal is the manner in which a person interprets any given event. In the first robbery, the emotion of gratitude is experienced because you cognitively appraised the situation as “an undeserved act of kindness”. You think to yourself, “this stranger didn’t have to risk their safety just to save my valuables. They could see by my expensive handbag/wallet that I could afford to buy a new one. They could have even kept the bag/wallet with the money and simply walked away with it themselves”.  

     With the second robbery, you did not cognitively appraise the situation as an “act of kindness” so you did not experience the emotion of gratitude. You are suspicious about the circumstances and you think to yourself “If the stranger really retrieved my bag/wallet out of the goodness of their heart, they wouldn’t be demanding a reward. I bet this was a set up. Their friend robbed me of my bag and the stranger pretended to get it back all the while trying to scam me out of a reward”. 

What is trait gratitude?

     Trait gratitude is continuous and enduring. Trait gratitude is understood as a ‘virtue’ or a personality characteristic and is not necessarily dependent upon cognitive appraisal of situational factors. Someone with trait gratitude will always have an underlying feeling of gratitude which can vary in frequency and duration depending on a wide variety of stimuli. Let’s look at the train example. A person with trait gratitude would have experienced the emotion of gratitude during both robberies and would have offered a reward even to the stranger involved in the second robbery. Even if the person suspected a scam during the second robbery, they would experience the emotion of gratitude nonetheless. They cannot help but to feel gratitude. A person with trait gratitude IS consistent over time and IS consistent across situations.

What are the mental health benefits of gratitude?

Researchers have shown that state gratitude is positively correlated with life satisfaction, positive affect and happiness and negatively correlated with depression, negative affect and physical aggression. Likewise, researchers have shown that trait gratitude is positively correlated with life satisfaction, positive affect, happiness, optimism and hope and negatively correlated with anxiety, depression and negative affect. Gratitude also weakens entitlement. The real lesson here is that if you are not naturally possessed with trait gratitude then you can learn to develop and strengthen your state gratitude (through gratitude exercises I will mention shortly). By consistently engaging in these gratitude exercises, you can control and influence how often you perceive events to be ‘worthy’ of gratitude and thus experience the emotion of gratitude more frequently and intensely.

What are some gratitude exercises?

Journaling: Writing down a few things that you are grateful for each day is one of the easiest and most popular gratitude exercises available. Journaling will automatically encourage you to engage in cognitive appraisal in order to generate answers.

Gratitude Jar/box: For those not comfortable with the idea of journaling, keeping a gratitude jar/box is another simple way to keep track of all of the things that you are grateful for. For the creative people, decorate a jar or a box to your liking. For the less creatively inclined, any old jar or box will do. The idea is to write on a slip of paper, at least three times a day, something that you are grateful for. It could be “I am grateful that I was able to meet my friend for coffee” or “I am grateful that that person gave me a seat on the bus”. You place the slip of paper into the jar or the box and at the end of the week you can ‘calculate’ all of the ways you experienced gratitude. For best results, try not to double up on responses.   

Carry a gratitude token with you at all times: A gratitude token is simply a small object (rock, toy, figurine) that is carried in your handbag, car or pocket and is used as a reminder for all that we have in life to be grateful for. Whenever you see the token, you encourage yourself to think of something which you are grateful for. 

A gratitude tree: This exercise is for the really creative people or as a fun way to teach children gratitude. The idea is to attach ‘gratitude leaves’ to the trunk/branches of a tree. The tree trunk/branches can be drawn and cut out and placed on the wall. The individual leaves are cut out and the gratitude suggestions are written onto each leaf before being placed on the tree. 

Mediation: Meditation is always a great way to calm the mind and allow us to view our naturally occurring gratitude thoughts. When our minds are not filled with clutter and stress, we can notice the positive things much more. 

Cognitive restructuring: This involves actively challenging situational events which occur throughout your day and actively seeking to see the ‘gratitude’ side of the events, for example “I was stuck in traffic for 15 minutes today” = “I had 15 minutes to relax and listen to a podcast on the car radio. I am grateful for that opportunity”.