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Published November 26, 2010, 12:00 AM

Gratitude affects overall health, happiness, life

A grateful heart is a quality that serves us well all year-round – not just at Thanksgiving. It affects our lives in many ways. It affects our happiness, coping and well-being.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

A grateful heart is a quality that serves us well all year-round – not just at Thanksgiving. It affects our lives in many ways. It affects our happiness, coping and well-being.

Psychologists Michael McCullough of the University of Miami and Robert Emmons at the University of California at Davis studied how gratitude works in our lives.

What is gratitude? Gratitude is an overall tendency to recognize the contributions of others to the good things that are happening in our lives. Feeling grateful is experienced as a pleasant and positive emotion.

But it is more than an emotion or a mood. It is a habitual way of looking at the world. To their surprise, McCullough and Emmons found that gratitude isn’t related to daily events but represents an attitude of appreciation for life in general.

Grateful people see gifts in the trivial and mundane. Highly grateful people possess a worldview in which everything they have – even life itself – is a gift. They don’t take the little things of life for granted.

McCullough and Emmons research shows that grateful people:

  • Recognize when good things happen to them, feel gratitude more intensely when something good happens and feel gratitude many times during the day for the simplest acts of kindness or politeness.
  • Feel grateful for a number of things at any one time. They feel grateful for their families, jobs, health, and friends, along with the specific positive benefits they perceive.
  • See how the efforts of others contribute to their happiness. Not only that, but they also make the connection between how many people’s efforts contribute to the good outcomes in their lives. Less grateful people focus narrowly on just one or two people for the same outcome. Grateful people don’t discount their own efforts. They stretch their appreciation to include other causes and contributions for their success.
  • Are more empathic. They are more agreeable. They can take the perspective of others. They display a greater willingness to forgive and not hold on to hurts and resentments. They are more optimistic, hopeful and more socially engaging. They are more likely to describe themselves as happy or satisfied in life.
  • Are more spiritual. Their ability to see the contributions of others to their lives is also extended to God and God’s intervention. This isn’t true for the negative events in their lives. McCullough found that gratitude isn’t confined to those with formalized religious faith. It is also shared by those who have a sense of the divine and spirituality in the universe and believe in the interconnection of all living things.
  • Experience less depression and anxiety. McCullough points out that we can consciously elevate our moods by cultivating and expressing gratitude. We are better able to cope with acute and chronic stressful life events. Gratitude might be the mediating factor that explains why religious people have better physical and mental health outcomes when faced with a health crisis.
  • Are not as envious. Grateful people don’t find happiness in material things, influence, power or sex appeal. They don’t judge their own worth by worldly standards and are less likely to judge others’ success in terms of possessions accumulated. They are less envious and resentful of others’ success and possessions.
  • Are judged by others as kind, warm-hearted and generous with their resources. Not only do they see people being good to them but they also notice another’s plight, and are more sympathetic and helpful.

    Fortunate versus unfortunate. Grateful people are often of modest financial means or have suffered personal tragedies while many who are well-to-do or those of good fortune exhibit little gratitude. A sense of thankfulness can turn someone’s life from bitter to positive.

    People who are indebted report more anger and lower levels of appreciation, happiness and love in their lives compared to grateful people. They are less likely to express appreciation or gratitude to others.

Emmons suggests, “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings. If you only think about your disappointments and unsatisfied wants, you may be prone to unhappiness. If you are fully aware of your disappointments but at the same time thankful for the good that has happened for your chance to live, you are more likely to show higher indices of well-being.”

Gratitude is an expression of humility, nobility, courtesy and morality and is the beginning of greatness.

In the cemeteries of Denmark, there is a common epitaph on the headstones, “Tak”, which means “thanks.” What a wonderful word to express the gift of their lives and to express to all who come to remember them. If they lived with a thankful heart, they had a good life.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website,