Grateful People Are Happy and Healthy—But Why?

What are you grateful for today? This question will have different answers for different people, and your answers could change every day. You could be grateful for that delicious dinner you had, for having good friends, or for the fact that the sun is shining and you can spend time outside.

Gratitude is the emotion we feel when we notice that something good has come into our lives and we appreciate it. Some people feel grateful more often than others. For example, some people feel very happy and grateful every time the sun is shining, while others barely notice such things at all. One way scientists measure how often people feel gratitude is by using questionnaires. To get a feel for how these questionnaires work, try thinking about how much you agree with each of these statements, from 1 to 10 (1 = “I strongly disagree,” 5 = “neutral,” 10 = “I strongly agree”):

I think it’s important to appreciate each day that I am alive.
After eating, I often pause and think, ‘What a wonderful meal.’
I think it’s important to enjoy the simple things in life.

After getting people’s answers to questions like these, scientists can then compare people who score very high on these scales (meaning they feel a lot of gratitude) with people who score very low on these scales (meaning they feel little to no gratitude).

Research has shown that teenagers and adults who feel grateful more often than others are also happier, get better grades, and have better friendships. They also sleep better, have more energy, and have fewer illnesses and less pain [1]. If someone is more grateful than someone else, it does not mean that this person is grateful all the time. People who say that they feel grateful a lot of the time still feel negative emotions, like sadness, fear, or anger. Both positive and negative emotions are part of our lives, but it is possible to increase our overall happiness. One way to do this is to pay more attention to the good things that happen in our life and feel grateful for them.

Studies have shown that you can practice being more grateful. Researchers asked teenagers to write down up to five things they were grateful for every day, for 2 weeks. After the 2 weeks, the teenagers said they felt more satisfied with their lives and happier with their school experiences [2]. The teenagers who completed the gratitude practice were still happier with their school experiences even three weeks later, when compared with teenagers who did not complete the gratitude practice [2]. It seems that gratitude has a lasting effect on happiness.

Why does gratitude make you happier and healthier? To come up with an answer to this question, we searched for all of the research papers about gratitude that have already been published. We then put these findings together to show how two different stories (also called models or pathways) could explain why gratitude leads to a happier life.

The Cognitive Pathway from Gratitude to Happiness
The first story (or model) that could explain why gratitude leads to greater happiness is what we call the “cognitiveAnother word for “thinking” or “thoughts.” pathway.” The words “cognitive” and “cognitionAnother word for “thinking” or “thoughts.”” are used by scientists to talk about thinking. According to this first story, we would not feel grateful if we did not think about the good things in our life.

If You Are More Grateful, You Will See the World in a More Positive Way
Studies have shown that people who are more grateful than others will automatically think about the things that happen to them in a more positive way. Most situations that happen in our lives are not 100% good or 100% bad. How we think about or interpret what happens to us plays a big role in how we feel about the situation. Most people have learned “thinking habits” that they repeat over and over again.

One of these thinking habits is what is called a “positive interpretation biasA habit of thinking in a certain way that makes it hard to change your mind. For example, a negative interpretation bias means that you interpret nearly everything that happens to you in a negative way. A positive attention bias, on the other hand, means that you mainly pay attention to the good things that happen.,” which means that you are more likely to interpret a neutral or negative situation in a more positive way. For example, after falling off your bike, you could think “I got so lucky that I did not get hurt” and feel very grateful. Or, you could think “I can’t believe I was so stupid to fall of my bike” and feel really angry. Having the grateful thoughts would be an example of a positive interpretation bias. On the opposite side, some people with depression feel sad and down nearly every day, for long periods of time. These people interpret most things in their life in a negative way, which means they have a negative interpretation bias. In Figure 1, we show a real-life example of how a positive interpretation bias leads to more happiness after getting a bad grade on a test.

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