by Chris Kelaher
As the fourth Thursday in November approaches, thoughts in the United States inevitably turn to Thanksgiving. (Canada beats us to the punch by marking Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October.) This national day of gratitude, whose roots trace back to a post-harvest feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, was first pronounced a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and has long been a staple of American cultural life. The holiday conjures up images of turkey and stuffing, parades and pie, airport delays, Black Friday shopping, and endless football. But the real star of the feast is thankfulness, or gratitude. So, what exactly is gratitude, and what does in mean in a psychology context?
Here is the definition presented in The APA Dictionary of Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2013):
Gratitude n. a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit (e.g., a present or favor) given by someone or a fortunate happenstance (e.g. a beautiful day).
It is only in relatively recent years that the concept gratitude has received much attention by psychology researchers, but it is now an area of growing attention, due at least in part to its prominent role in positive psychology. It also is an area of interest within subfields such as personality, religion and spirituality, and happiness studies, among others.
Using the search term “gratitude” in APA’s PsycNET database brings up 1,017 results, including 129 books or book chapters. For example, Robert D. Carlisle and Jon-Ann Tsang contributed a chapter on “The Virtues: Gratitude and Forgiveness” to 2013’s APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, edited by Kenneth Pargament. (See link below.) Tsang and Carlisle define gratitude in this way: ““a positive emotional reaction to the receipt of a benefit that is perceived to have resulted from the good intentions of another.”
- Other recent books of interest to those who study gratitude include Philip C. Watkins’ Gratitude and the Good Life: Toward a Psychology of Appreciation (Springer, 2014) and Salman Akhtar’s Good Stuff: Courage, Resilience, Gratitude, Forgiveness, and Sacrifice (Jason Aronson, 2013.)
Several recent psychology books also include individual chapters devoted to the topic of gratitude. A partial sampling:
- Anthony Ahrens, Courtney Forbes, and Michael Tirade contributed a “Gratitude” chapter to Guilford Press’ Handbook on Positive Emotions (2014).
- Michael Furlong et al’s Handbook of Positive Psychology in the Schools 2ed includes the chapter “Gratitude in Schools: Benefits of Students and Schools” by Giaconda Bono, Jeffrey J. Froh, and Rafael Forrest.
- 2014’s Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Positive Psychology in Interventions (Acacia C. Parks and Stephen M. Schuler, eds.) includes a chapter on “Gratitude Interventions: A Review and Future Agenda,” by Tara Lamas, Jeffrey J. Froh, Robert A. Emmons, Anjali Mishra, and Giaconda Bono.
Thanks to these researchers and others like them, we are developing a much better understanding of gratitude. It has benefits on both ends—for people who receive thanks or appreciation, of course, but also for those expressing thanks. For example, Carlisle and Tsang tell us that “gratitude provides information
about the value, cost, intentionality, and role-independent nature of a benefit from another person.” It promotes pro-social behavior, and researchers have also identified links between gratitude and other positive traits or circumstances, such as life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, empathy, and hope.
In the words of Robert Emmons, a leader in the field and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, “Gratitude works. It has the power to heal, to energize, and to change lives.” So go forth, be grateful, and enjoy your Thanksgiving.
You can read more about the benefits of gratitude via the links below.