The Art and Importance of Gratitude

by Dr Amrita Sen Mukherjee (www.yourwellbeing.doctor)

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Gratitude is on everyone’s mind, but what is it?

Gratitude is the “tendency to recognize and respond with grateful emotion to the role of other people’s benevolence in the positive experiences and outcomes that one obtains” (McCullough et al., 2002, p 112). Gratitude has been described as both a transcendence virtue and a character strength which serves to benefit individuals and society in flourishing. It is postulated that gratitude is an all-encompassing positive affect, mood and emotion and, as such, when considering gratitude, it is important to focus on one facet of it.

As a positive emotion, when nurtured, gratitude can ‘propagate further…resourcing action’ (Boniwell & Tunariu, 2019, p 23), such as improving physical health, increasing our social integration and increasing connectivity. These behaviours are important in such times of adversity and can be so important now with the COVID-19 pandemic. By investing in improving and strengthening our ability to feel grateful, we also promote more altruistic behaviours and resilience at both individual and community levels which positively correlate with life satisfaction and wellbeing.

Why is Gratitude Important?

Being actively and mindfully grateful can build and develop a positive mental bias which serves to broaden our neural networks, building positivity in a manner which can spiral upwards, extending laterally into other spheres of life as proposed (and previously discussed) by Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory.

By actively acknowledging what we are individually grateful for, however big or small this may be, we have an opportunity to retrain our brain and even to rewire our neural programming to encourage a growth mindset. By becoming more mindful of what we are grateful for, we can practice gratitude as a conscious, learned behaviour. Our thoughts become feelings which become emotions turning into behaviours.

If we consciously invite thoughts that are more grateful, we become more practiced in changing our behaviours, akin to riding a bike – practice makes perfect!

How can I increase my levels of gratitude? – The Gratitude Visit PPI.

The Gratitude Visit, proposed by Seligman et al., 2005, is a positive psychology intervention (PPI) which works to increase our levels of gratitude. Those who undertake the PPI find that they may be able to organise their thoughts and emotions with more clarity. This helps with developing and cementing their own personal understanding and unique perspective on meaning in life. The actual kinaesthetic act of writing is supportive in bringing a subconscious emotion into the conscious pre-frontal cortex. This uses the brain’s neuroplasticity to support the development of the positive emotion, in this case, that being gratitude. This further embeds the emotion, thus weaving it into new cognitive processes.

How do I conduct the PPI?

You can carry out this PPI by itself and reflect on the subjective feeling and emotional changes you experience, or, if you prefer, these changes can be measured objectively by completing the Gratitude Questionnaire which is attached in Appendix A.

  1. First things first, consider someone you would like to express your gratitude to (try to pick someone who is still alive today) who has been influential in your life. It could be someone who is a friend, a colleague or a teacher or a family member.
  2. If you choose to, undertake the gratitude questionnaire given in appendix A.
  3. Write a letter to the person you have chosen and address it to them i.e. ‘Dear X’. Make it semi-formal with your address and date and at the top but then let your feelings flow and don’t worry about spelling and grammar or making it ‘perfect’ or neat.
  4. Concentrate on what the person did for you and why you are grateful for this person and how their behaviour has affected your life now.
  5. Try and spend around 15 minutes writing this letter.
  6. After writing this letter, complete the questionnaire in Appendix A again (if you have chosen to do this) and compare scores and keep them safe.
  7. Owing to our current circumstances and social distancing, try and organise a video call with the recipient, but do not inform them of the reason for the call.
  8. When you meet, ask politely not to be interrupted when you are reading the letter to them and explain that you will be reading a letter of gratitude to them.
  9. Take your time, paying attention to the receiver and be receptive to their emotions. Take time to discuss both of your emotions together after and if possible, find a way to give them the letter that you have written them.
  10. If you want to see how your gratitude increases over time, you can complete the questionnaire a final time one week later (and if you so wish, complete the questionnaire one month; three months and six months later too).

The intervention is fairly short and therefore it is quite easy to accommodate into a busy schedule. You may find that initially, it is difficult to articulate your thoughts if you are not a natural writer, but this may pass as you get into the flow of writing.   

What will be the benefits of increasing my gratitude?

Gratitude has been shown to provide individuals, communities and society with several benefits. The following is not an exhaustive list.

Gratitude is described as being an internal cognition which means it is a quality, we feel within us. But what is really special about gratitude, is that evidence suggests that this internal cognition, which increases our engagement in life, also enables us to establish, engage and maintain the positive relationships we hold. We can therefore see how this internal cognition actually translates into a visible trait as those around us notice us becoming more grateful. Signs of gratitude are that we start to feel more positive in all aspects of life, we have greater optimism, life satisfaction and this has been shown to relate to spirituality, empathy and prosocial behaviour. An outward sign you may notice is that ‘the little things in life don’t bother you as much’.

Final thoughts

Working on our positive emotions is hard work, we have to invest in ourselves, giving ourselves time and energy, such as when we go for our daily exercise to work on our physical being or change to more healthy eating habits. These changes take time, practice and patience. By investing in ourselves through these acts we are able to improve our own physical wellbeing, subjective wellbeing and psychological wellbeing. Specifically, working on gratitude can have immeasurable positive benefits which can support our lives working in horizontal, vertical and oblique manners weaving and interweaving into all spheres of life. These measures can take time and there is no right or wrong way, everyone’s journey is unique to them and each journey holds equal importance.

I sincerely hope that this introduction to gratitude is insightful and would love to hear about your experiences and journey.

Please contact me on: amrita@yourwellbeing.doctor

Appendix A

The Gratitude Questionnaire-Six Item Form (GQ-6)

Reference: McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A

conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.

Using the scale below as a guide, write a number beside each statement to indicate how much you agree with it.

1 = strongly disagree 2 = disagree 3 = slightly disagree 4 = neutral 5 = slightly agree 6 = agree 7 = strongly agree

____1. I have so much in life to be thankful for.

____2. If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.

____3. When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.*

____4. I am grateful to a wide variety of people.

____5. As I get older I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events, and situations that have been part of my life history.

____6. Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone.*

Scoring Instructions:

1. Add up your scores for items 1, 2, 4, and 5.

2. Reverse your scores for items 3 and 6. That is, if you scored a “7,” give yourself a “1,” if you scored a “6,” give yourself a “2,” etc.

3. Add the reversed scores for items 3 and 6 to the total from Step 1. This is your total GQ-6 score. This number should be between 6 and 42.

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