The Christmas season is a time of giving. But in the delight of giving and receiving presents that so characterizes the holidays, a different emotion, gratitude, often falls by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong. We all know that saying “thank you” is polite. It’s the rare person who won’t offer a quick smile, hug, or other gesture of appreciation when handed a present. But saying or doing something perfunctorily is entirely different than feeling it deeply. And when it comes to gratitude, missing an opportunity to fully embrace it means missing out on one of the best gifts of all. As a psychologist who has spent the past 15 years studying how gratitude shapes people’s lives, I’ve become convinced that it’s one of the most powerful capacities we have.
Gratitude, like all emotions, has one broad purpose: to change what you do next. Psychologically speaking, you can think of emotions as nudges that guide your brain’s predictions about what course of action is best at any given time. For example, if you’re feeling angry, your mind expects arguments and conflict to arise, expectations that lead you to be more hostile in your interactions with others. In the case of gratitude, however, a growing body of research, including much from my own lab, has shown that it not only can improve your life, but also the lives of those around you. It’s a parent virtue of sorts – one that, when cultivated, gives rise to others. As Diana Butler Bass notes in her book Grateful, gratitude strengthens our character. And it’s for this reason that I think gratitude holds such a central place in Christian doctrine. It was long ago recognized to be a tool of sorts, what On Being host Krista Tippet has called a “spiritual technology,” that functions to automatically enhance virtue for the benefit of all.
Research I conducted with the psychologist Monica Bartlett shows that gratitude doesn’t only make us repay our debts; it also encourages us to “pay it forward,” to lend a hand to others in need, even if they’re complete strangers. In related experiments, we also found that gratitude fosters generosity. People who we led to feel grateful became more willing to share their profits with others.
The benefits of gratitude aren’t solely limited to making people be good Samaritans. Feeling grateful also makes us more honest. In a different experiment from my lab, we asked people to report whether a computerized coin they flipped in private came up heads or tails. Flipping heads meant they’d get more money. But unbeknownst to them, the coin was rigged to come up tails so that we could easily tell who was lying. Right before people flipped the coin, we evoked gratitude in some by asking them to count their blessings. The results were dramatic. Whereas 53 percent of people not feeling gratitude chose to cheat, that statistic dropped by half among those feeling grateful.
Self-control is yet another virtue that gratitude enhances. For example, work I’ve done in collaboration with the decision scientists Jennifer Lerner and Ye Li demonstrates that people feeling grateful make less impulsive financial choices than do others. They’re more willing to be patient for future investment gains than to take smaller amounts of money in hand. As a result, grateful people also tend to be less materialistic. But gratitude’s links to self-control aren’t limited to money. It also works when it comes to health-related goals. As the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues demonstrated, people induced to feel grateful became better able to resist gobbling down unhealthy foods. And as the psychologist Robert Emmons has shown, people asked to do daily gratitude reflections became more willing to exercise.
Even in trying times, gratitude can serve as a pillar of support. The psychologist Alex Wood and colleagues have documented that people who more regularly experience gratitude tend to be buffered from the ravages of stress and depression. Along these lines, Wood also found that regularly feeling gratitude is tightly linked to wellbeing and to the size and quality of people’s social networks.
By helping people to be honest and generous, to resist temptations that distract them from their goals, to feel more connected, and to be resilient in the face of professional and social challenges, gratitude is the perfect present. It gives us not only the grit to succeed, but the grace to ensure that while doing so, we’ll treat each other with care and respect.
So, beginning this Christmas season, I urge you to do more than offer a quick thanks to family and friends. Embrace gratitude deeply every day of the year. Remember, emotions don’t just happen to you. You can, by adopting simple strategies, curate your own. Every day, take a few moments to reflect on something for which you’re grateful. Thinking about small kindnesses or benefits that happened in the past few days works just as well as thinking about the major ones in your life. Or, reach out to help others; they’ll return the favor and give you yet more to be thankful for. If you choose to give thanks in all circumstances, as Saint Paul wisely urged, you’ll find a gift that keeps on giving long after Christmas has passed.