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Psychology Today | Grant Hilary Brenner M.D. | How Does Spontaneous Gratitude Increase Daily Well-Being?
Previous research on the positive effects of gratitude has shown that gratitude appears to reduce stress and foster well-being (e.g. Wood et al., 2010). A recent prospective study in which people were instructed to list things they were grateful for on a daily basis supports this notion (Krejtz et al., 2016). However, little if any, research has looked at whether spontaneous (non-directed) changes in gratitude track with well-being and stress response. Rather than being a stable personality characteristic (a “trait”), gratitude may be more of a “state,” varying over the course of time—or perhaps a combination of both. Do daily fluctuations in gratitude correlate with well-being and indicators of happiness, stress, and depression? Furthermore, does gratitude serve as a buffer for stress and negativity, helping to offset toxic effects on more challenging days?
In order to look more closely at how natural day-to-day levels of gratitude may interact with various indicators of well-being and stress, researchers Nezlek, Krejtz, Rusanowska and Holas (2018) followed 131 participants for two weeks, using daily self-assessments to investigate correlations among gratitude and factors related to well-being and stress. Daily measures included gratitude, positive and negative emotional states, self-esteem, depressogenic adjustment (optimism about oneself and life), worry, and rating of important events of the day on how stressful and how positive they were. Participants reported on 10 possible categories for events: family, interpersonal, partner, work, finances, official, health, hobby, values, and other/everyday events.
As in previous studies looking at intentionally cultivated gratitude, researchers found that on every measure, gratitude was significantly correlated with well-being. On days when people felt more grateful, well-being was reported as being higher. Likewise, on higher stress days, participants reported lower well-being, and on lower stress days, participants reported greater well-being.
Using gratitude to buffer stress responses.
Importantly, they found that gratitude did in fact appear to act as a buffer for stress. On days with fewer positive events, gratitude and well-being were more strongly related, suggesting that gratitude may serve to bolster resilience, amplifying lower positive emotions on difficult days or perhaps even providing, essentially, internal positive events to compensate for a lack of external positive events. This is especially noteworthy because people often have difficulty tapping into gratitude when difficulties arise, focusing on negatives with bitterness or pessimism.
Gratitude therefore appears to provision us internally with a positive response when external events fail to do so. For people who are able to muster up gratitude when the going gets rough, not only as a generally characteristic but also as a just-in-time response to stress and negative events, gratitude can be a “bridge over troubled water” that helps to keep us from getting pulled down into a negative spiral of maladaptive coping. People who use gratitude in this way must be able to do so, rather than undermining resilient responses.
Gratitude, compassion and resilience.
In keeping with research showing that resilience is related to cognitive flexibility, active coping, optimism, and related beliefs, the current research suggests that a subset of people use gratitude automatically, generating a state of mind which buffers negative events and stressful responses to sustain greater overall well-being. Religious belief, which often emphasizes gratitude, is also associated with greater levels of resilience. In addition, recent research by Abbondandolo and Sigal (2018) also found a positive relationship between self-compassion and active coping, suggesting that there are common pathways governing gratitude, self-compassion, and resilience.
Additional research is required to further understand the causal relationships between gratitude, resilience, well-being, and related factors in order to spell out what innate factors help make us stronger, as well as what interventions can bolster overall well-being. Understanding whether those who naturally utilize gratitude to buffer stress and sustain well-being tend to do this consciously or not, how they had learned to do so during the course of development, and whether there are intrinsic factors that predispose one to feel grateful would help us learn how to teach the effective use of gratitude—especially for those who have difficulty seeing for what, if anything, there is to be grateful.