People experience gratitude when they affirm that something good has happened to them and when they recognize that someone else is largely responsible for this benefit. The source of the benefit is often (but not always) another human. The benefit prompting a grateful response may be the absence of some negative event, as well as the occurrence of a positive favor. Some of the strongest gratitude responses have been found to occur when individuals feel that something bad could have or should have happened to them but did not. Although early research in this area often equated the feelings of gratitude and indebtedness (feeling obligated to repay), recent research has shown that there are important differences between these emotions, and they probably should be seen as distinct states.
Background and Importance of Gratitude
Although gratitude has been a neglected topic in psychology, it appears to be one of the most important of the social emotions. Gratitude has been shown to be a highly valued social trait; people like grateful individuals and tend to disdain those they feel are ungrateful.
Gratitude has been classified as a moral emotion in that it is an emotion that promotes positive interactions among people. Gratitude may be seen as a moral emotion because it is a moral barometer (it alerts people to the fact that someone else has benefited them), a moral motivator (it encourages people to act positively toward others), and a moral reinforcer (when an individual expresses gratitude, it encourages the giver to give again in the future).
It is important to understand that gratitude can be studied as an emotional state (i.e., how grateful a person is feeling right now) and as an emotional or personality trait. Trait gratitude is the disposition toward gratitude, or how easily a person may experience grateful emotions. A person who frequently experiences grateful feelings is someone who could be characterized as a grateful person, or a person high in trait gratitude. A person low in trait gratitude would be a person who rarely experiences gratitude. Two questionnaires are often used to investigate the disposition toward gratitude: the Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6) and the Gratitude, Resentment, and Appreciation Test (the GRAT).
Research has been able to identify the situations in which a person is most likely to feel grateful. First, the person must recognize that a benefit has been given to him or her, and the more the person values the benefit, the more he or she tends to feel grateful. Second, gratitude is more likely to be experienced if the person receiving the gift feels that it was given to him or her in good will. In other words, the receiver thinks that the motives of the giver are good; the gift was given for the benefit of the receiver. If the person receiving the benefit feels that it was given for ulterior or irrelevant motives, gratitude is not likely. Similarly, if the receivers of the benefit like the giver, they are more likely to feel grateful toward their benefactor. In addition, if the gift goes beyond the receivers’ expectations of the giver, the receivers tend to feel more grateful. It is for this reason that people are more likely to feel grateful toward a new acquaintance for driving them to the airport than one of their parents (because they have greater expectations of their parents). Finally, research has also shown that when a receiver of a benefit thinks that the giver expects some kind of return favor, the receiver is less likely to feel grateful.
Research that has investigated relationships between trait gratitude and other variables has provided a picture of what grateful people are like. Grateful people tend to be more agreeable, prosocial, hopeful, and emotionally intelligent; have higher self-esteem; and are more religious and spiritual. Grateful people also tend to be less depressed, less hostile, less self-centered, and less neurotic. Perhaps most importantly, gratitude has been found to be strongly related to happiness, such that grateful individuals tend to be happier as indicated both by their own admission and also by the reports of others who know them. Researchers have proposed several theories for this relationship. For example, some evidence suggests that gratitude promotes happiness by directing people’s focus to good things they have, rather than to benefits that they lack. Gratitude might also enhance happiness by increasing people’s enjoyment of benefits. Some have argued that gratitude may help people deal with difficult events in their lives, and some research supports this hypothesis. For example, the unpleasantness of negative memories appears to fade over time more for grateful people than for ungrateful people. Also, grateful people appear to handle trauma better than less grateful individuals. Gratitude is also a common emotion that people experience following a disturbing event. Individuals reported an increase in gratitude following the events of September 11, 2001, and this response appeared to help them deal with its aftermath. Some have also suggested that gratitude might pro-mote happiness by encouraging positive reflections on one’s past. Research has shown that grateful people are more likely to recall happy memories.
Several studies have investigated treatments designed to encourage their participants to experience gratitude. Encouraging grateful thinking produces an improvement in mood, and studies encouraging regular grateful thinking over time showed increases in one’s happiness and optimism. Experiments have also found that grateful people report more urges to act favorably toward those they know, and gratitude also appears to inhibit the urge to act in harmful ways toward others. Taken together, research suggests that there are many benefits to gratitude. Gratitude appears to be an important factor contributing to one’s happiness.
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