Does Gratitude Make Us Happier?

19 Dec

Course excerpt from Leveraging Adversity


Image result for images showing gratitude


“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

In his 2012 TED talk, Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, states, “A year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives” (Gilbert, 2012).

For most people, this makes no sense. Why would it be that losing everything wouldn’t fundamentally change our happiness levels? This is, after all, what most of us believe. It’s why we try to avoid setbacks, mitigate losses, and improve our health. If having losses—and none might be so severe as the ones suffered by paraplegics—can mean that we arrive at the exact same place as when we win the lottery, why should we spend so much time trying to avoid them? Maybe we shouldn’t.

But we still need an answer. How is it possible that losing the use of limbs can lead to the same level of happiness as winning the lottery? And what does this mean about the way we look at setbacks? To answer these questions, we first have to consider two possibilities:

  • What we predict will make us happy doesn’t. That is, in considering what leads to happiness, and making decisions based on happiness, we choose wrongly.
  • Losing everything leads to a profound feeling of appreciation for what we have left, and this feeling of appreciation is highly linked to happiness.

Let’s consider the first possibility. Gilbert, and many others like him, have shown repeatedly that the attachments we make to certain outcomes—whether it is winning the lottery, having a child, getting a raise, or losing everything—are often wrong. And this may have a lot to do with our beliefs about happiness.

Happiness, for most people, is inextricably linked to beliefs about experiences (Gilbert, 2006). If we believe that earning a college degree will lead to happiness, we pursue that. And if we are raised in a family that values athletic achievement, we go after that.

We are also highly influenced by the environment. The fascinating research of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, has shown that the environment influences us much more than we think, even in subtle ways. In one study, Thaler and Sunstein had subjects read a passage that was primed toward slowness (using words such as “old,” “tired,” “weak,” and “retirement”) or a passage that was primed toward speed (using words like “energetic,” “lively,” “young,” and “children”) and then measured the subjects’ walking speed down the hall as they exited the research lab. Without having any idea what was being measured or to which study group they had been assigned, the subjects showed something fascinating: the ones who had been primed to walk faster did just that, while participants who had read the passage primed for slowness did indeed walk slower (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009).

Neither group had been told anything about walking slower or faster; they had simply been exposed to it through verbal priming.

So we can be primed to act in certain ways that are presumed to lead to happiness. It’s why we go for the promotion. It’s why we want the big house on the nice street, the luxury vehicle in the garage, and the vacation home in Vail. And like it or not, we are constantly exposed to messages that tell us what will lead to happiness. We are told what to buy, what to wear, what to eat and when to eat it, and where to vacation. Yet we are also told that if we don’t jump on the opportunity now, the chance will be gone. The sale ends tonight, you have to buy now, and the sale only lasts so long. Making use of our fear of missing out, or what Gregg Easterbrook, author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, calls “loss avoidance,” marketers not only prime us, they prod us (Easterbrook, 2004).

So what do many of us do? We pursue that esteemed position—the one with the hefty salary—so we can buy the nice house, the new car, and the fancy vacation home. And the zest with which we go after this American dream—the one that promises happiness—can only be equated to a disease called “affluenza,” according to John de Graaf, David Waan, Thomas Naylor, and David Horsey, authors of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. What these authors cite is a multitude of unequivocal examples of all-out consumerism—in each of the past four years, more Americans declared personal bankruptcy than graduated from college, we have twice as many shopping centers as schools, and our annual production of solid waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks stretching to the moon—that all lead to the same conclusion: we have been led to believe that all this spending will bring us happiness (de Graff et al., 2005).

Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider the data presented by Easterbrook:

“The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as happy has not budged since the 1950s, though the typical person’s real income more than doubled during that period. Happiness has not increased in Japan or Western Europe in the past half-century either, though daily life in both of those places has grown fantastically better. Adjusting for population growth, unipolar depression, the condition in which a person simply feels blue, is ten times as prevalent as it was half a century ago” (Easterbrook, 2004).

Easterbrook goes on to make the case that the way we link material wealth to happiness is a “nature’s revenge law” where no matter how much money you have, there will always be something you can’t afford. And while you will never be materially satisfied, you will also have “reference anxiety” because you will be comparing yourself to those around you and worrying that you are not keeping up. You will always be expecting more, and regardless of how high your income is, the minute it plateaus, so will your happiness.

Because the truth is, as Easterbrook accounts, “Most of what people really want in life—love, friendship, respect, family, standing, fun—is not priced and does not pass through the market. If something isn’t priced, you can’t buy it, so possessing money doesn’t help much” (Easterbrook, 2004).

While this premise may seem obvious upon second glance, many of us fall for it. As one man described to me, “You just get stuck in a cycle where you know you are unhappy, but you can’t quite figure out why, and so you just keep buying things trying to make yourself feel better. But at the end of the day, you are still stuck with yourself—and a lot of stuff you don’t really need.”

In terms of predicting what makes us happy, we often pursue a set of false beliefs about happiness—that is, that the things we think will make us happy actually don’t. But when it comes to predicting our happiness, we also make another error: we miscalculate the impact that losses will have on us (Gilbert, 2006).

Pointing to what is called the impact bias, Gilbert explains that when considering the future, and the way we will feel about the future, we tend to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. The flip side of this, as Gilbert also mentions, is that we also tend to overestimate the negative impact of bad events.

Making his point, Gilbert quotes Moreese Bickham, who spent thirty-seven years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn’t commit. Upon being released, Bickham stated, “I don’t have one minute’s regret; it was a glorious experience” (Gilbert, 2012).

No one would consider that such a fundamental loss would lead to happiness, and certainly not a “glorious experience,” but the point to be made is that we make a profound miscalculation. And the miscalculation is not in whether or not losses will undermine our happiness—they will. The real miscalculation we make is in our ability to adapt. Perhaps it’s the unknown nature of losses that clouds our predictions, or perhaps it’s that we have an innate ability to take the events that happen to us and “find a way,” as Gilbert states. We don’t see our own ability.

Yet, here again, we might be more influenced by the environment than we would like to admit. Because while child psychologists tell us that all attempts to shape a child’s behavior should employ the use of a three-to-one ratio—three positive statements to one bid for change (criticism)—we expose ourselves to something entirely different. Ray Williams, the author of Breaking Bad Habits, reports that media studies show that bad news far outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report (Williams, 2011). The supposition that Williams makes is that the media exploits our own biological tendency to focus more—and be impacted more—by bad events than positive ones. And because, as we know from section one, we seek to elaborate negatively charged emotions more than positive ones, we will return to the negative news again and again.

But there might be another reason we are saturated by negative news. Negative news keeps us feeling bad, and as the story goes, the way to happiness is to spend. The supposition is that the worse we feel, the more we will spend. Making matters worse, an anxious, depressed state does not lead to wise spending decisions. And being made to feel negative—and primed to reach for a cure that cannot possibly make anyone feel better—in many ways, we are put into a state of learned helplessness. And while in this state, it’s not surprising that when bad events do give us a feeling of helpless in our own lives, we miscalculate the way in which we will respond to them.

Now let’s consider the second possibility. The idea that losing everything somehow leads to actually feeling more grateful seems entirely foreign to most people. But as we already know, we make some pretty big mistakes when it comes to predicting how we will feel. And losses have an undeniable effect on gratitude.

The reason they do is that, as Joseph and Linley (2005), two researchers who study losses and the processes we take to get through them, suggest, gratitude is an essential part of the recovery process. It appears that people’s recovery from the traumatic experience is influenced by the extent to which they are able to find some benefit in the experience (Joseph & Linley, 2004). And the kinds of benefits people report—living life to the fullest, a greater appreciation of family and friends, and valuing each day more – are what most people really want.

Whether it’s valuing each day more, living life more fully, or simply appreciating those “little moments,” gratitude has a remarkable effect on the way we get through any kind of adversity. Gratitude orients us toward noticing the positive aspects of our lives, which is especially helpful in light of losses.

In the words of one survivor, “even the smallest joys in life took on a special meaning” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). These little moments of joy—a child’s smile, spending time with loved ones, a beautiful sunset—add up to a profound appreciation for what we still have.

Gratitude, and especially the kind that comes from losses, changes our priorities. For many people who report severe life setbacks, the sense of being “so lucky” is not uncommon. And gratitude causes one to value what’s left—just as Amy Purdy, the world’s top-ranked Paralympic snowboarder, related after losing both legs to bacterial meningitis, “I almost lost my left hand and my nose—it could have been much worse” (Purdy, 2011).

To many of us, the story seems unbelievable. But Amy Purdy, in looking back upon her experience, “wouldn’t change it.” And Amy’s experience isn’t unique. Several trauma survivors also report “not wanting things to be different.” In the words of one survivor, “This was the one thing that happened in my life that I needed to have happen, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me” (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

Losses, setbacks, and traumas put things in perspective. They cause us to take a look at how we were living—to acknowledge that life could have been lost—and to reconsider what is really important. This leads to a profound recalibration of values and a much more purposeful life. As one cancer survivor stated, “I don’t concern myself with life’s small inconveniences, and I don’t have the patience for chronic complainers. I am so grateful for having survived cancer…I’m living the best life I can, and I don’t take anything for granted” (Verona et al., 2009).

The connection between gratitude and a purposeful life may explain what many have found when studying Vietnam War veterans. Those who reported higher levels of gratitude had more positive daily functioning (irrespective of symptomatology). But this might also be why a second study found a positive relationship between posttraumatic growth and recovery from trauma (Joseph & Linley, 2004).

The idea postulated by those who study posttraumatic growth is that trauma can lead to profound growth. That in going through even horrific experiences, there can be growth that surpasses pre trauma functioning. And some of the most undeniable evidence for posttraumatic growth can be found when looking at the September 11 attacks in 2001. Peterson and Seligman (2002) measured people before and after the attacks on the VIA inventory of psychological strengths, which acts as a map of positive functioning (Wood et al., 2011; Seligman & Peterson, 2002). Astoundingly, gratitude was shown to increase over this period. And this was not the only study. Several subsequent studies showed that gratitude appeared to increase for both adults and children after the attacks (Seligman & Peterson, 2004). There is something about losses, even the most profound ones, that dramatically increases gratitude.

While gratitude may have evolved to make us more cooperative, trusting, and favorable toward others, the question remains: Does this improve happiness?

Gratitude has been repeatedly linked to eudemonic well-being—the kind of purposeful, authentic living reported by trauma survivors (Joseph & Linley, 2004). And eudemonic well-being is highly related to happiness – in a longitudinal cohort of over 5,500 people initially aged fifty-five to fifty-six years, Wood and Joseph showed that people low in eudemonic well-being were 7.16 times more likely to meet criteria for clinical depression ten years later (Joseph & Linley, 2004).

Gratitude also relates to willingness to forgive, which is associated with the absence of psychopathological traits and is integral to positive functioning. Gratitude is connected to low narcissism and appears to strengthen relationships and promote relationship formation and maintenance. Relationship connection and satisfaction also appear to be highly linked to gratitude, and experimental evidence suggests that gratitude may promote conflict resolution and increase reciprocally helpful behavior (Wood et al., 2010).

Gratitude appears to also have important health ramifications and is associated with a significantly lower risk of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, and drug “abuse” or dependence. Additionally, feeling thankful has been related to a much lower risk of bulimia nervosa, which is not surprising given that interventions that increase gratitude appear to improve body image (Wood et al., 2010).

Looking at the role of gratitude in staving off posttraumatic stress disorder, researchers looked at a sample of Vietnam War veterans, including forty-two patients diagnosed with PTSD and a control group of thirty-five comparison veterans, to find that gratitude is “substantially lower in people with PTSD.” Further, gratitude was shown to relate to higher daily self-esteem and positive affect above the effects of symptomatology (Wood et al., 2011).

Gratitude also appears to improve sleep. Many studies have specifically examined the possible relationships between gratitude and sleep in a community sample of 401 people, 40 percent of whom had clinically impaired sleep. Gratitude was related to total sleep quality, sleep duration (including both insufficient and excessive sleep), sleep latency (abnormally high time taken to fall asleep), subjective sleep quality, and daytime dysfunction (arising from insufficient sleep). In each case, gratitude was related to sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Negative thoughts prior to sleep are related to impaired sleep, whereas positive pre-sleep cognitions are related to improved sleep quality and quantity (Joseph & Linley, 2004).

And gratitude appears to offer a buffer against negative emotions. In three separate studies, it has been negatively correlated with depression (Joseph & Linley, 2004). This is also consistent with the life orientation approach to gratitude, as being oriented toward the positive seems to counteract the “negative triad” of beliefs about self, world, and future seen in depression (Joseph & Linley, 2004).

The single measure of gratitude appears to be linked to more independent traits of well-being than any other measure. It has been correlated with positive emotional functioning, lower dysfunction, and positive social relationships. Grateful people score as less angry and hostile, depressed, and emotionally vulnerable, and experience positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude has also been correlated with traits associated with positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Finally, grateful people had a higher openness to their feelings, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving (Joseph & Linley, 2004; Achor, 2011).

When it comes to the way losses affect us, we make some pretty big miscalculations. Not only do we fail to consider that we are not the best predictors of our emotional states, but more importantly, we profoundly underestimate our ability to adapt. And when it comes to adapting—learning to leverage our losses in service of ultimate growth—we fail to see the advantage that gratitude offers.

What we should know by now is that gratitude orients us to notice the positives, alters our priorities, enhances our sense of purpose, and dramatically improves our happiness. We should also know that facing challenging setbacks, naturally engages our sense of gratitude, and that helps us cope.

Click here to learn more

Leveraging Adversity is a 6-Hour online continuing education course. This course gives clinicians the tools they need to help their clients face adversity from a growth perspective and learn how to use setbacks to spring forward and ignite growth. Packed with recent data on post-traumatic growth, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology, this course begins with a look at just what setbacks are and how they affect us. Clinicians are then introduced to the concept of “leveraging adversity,” that is, using it to make critical reconsiderations, align values with behavior, and face challenges with a growth mindset. The course then addresses the five core strengths of leveraging adversity – gratitude, openness, personal strength (growth mindset), connection, and belief – and provides numerous exercises and skills for clinicians to use with clients.

Course #61-03 | 2018 | 92 pages | 35 posttest questions


CE Credit: 6 Hours

Target Audience: Psychology CE | Counseling CE | Social Work CE | Occupational Therapy CEUs | Marriage & Family Therapy CE | School Psychology CE | Teaching CE

Learning Level: Intermediate

Course Type: Online

Professional Development Resources is a nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) organized in 1992. We are approved to sponsor continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners; and are CE Broker compliant (all courses are reported within a few days of completion).


Target Audience: PsychologistsCounselorsSocial WorkersMarriage & Family Therapist (MFTs)Occupational Therapists (OTs)Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs)School Psychologists, and Teachers

Earn CE Wherever YOU Love to Be!




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Posted by on December 19, 2017 in Mental Health


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