The effects of thankfulness on well-being

By Charlotte Chui

As the year rapidly draws to a close, the weather cools. Along with it come the quintessential aspects of the season: freshly baked pumpkin pie, a chilly breeze, spiced apple cider, the crunch of crisp autumn leaves. These indicators are a sign of Thanksgiving’s rapid approach, the time of year where many take a moment to be grateful for what they have. 

Though Thanksgiving serves as a reminder for many to give thanks, the act of gratitude on a regular basis can have positive effects on mental and emotional well being. For the purpose of his studies, researcher and UC Davis professor Dr. Robert A Emmons developed a way to measure a person’s gratitude through a test called the Gratitude Questionnaire Six Item Form, also known as the GQ-6.

The GQ-6 is comprised of six questions that ask the participant to assess varying aspects of their thankfulness, such as the number and variety of items that they are thankful for. These six questions are scored from a scale of one to seven, from strongly disagree to strongly agree, and these numbers are used to calculate the percentile that the participant falls under. 

In a study conducted by Emmons and his partner, psychologist Michael E. McCullough, 192 participants were split into three groups, each with a weekly journal assignment to write: what they were thankful for, what bothered or annoyed them and what happened throughout the course of the week. The last group served as the control, since they were not given specific instructions to focus on any negative or positive events, unlike the first gratitude group and the second negative group. 

In addition to these journal assignments and recording events that occurred, participants were also asked to self-assess other aspects of their life, ranging from their emotional and physical state to their level of exercise and the amount of caffeine they consumed. 

When putting this data in context with each of the three groups, Emmons and McCullough found that those in the gratitude group perceived upcoming events, both short-term and long-term, in a more positive light than the other two groups. They also scored higher when self-assessing their own overall well-being and emotional state. 

In another experiment conducted by professors and researchers Lung Hung Chen and Ying Hwa Kee, Emmons’ GQ-6 was adapted to apply to Taiwanese high school athletes. Chen and Kee had the intentions to place Emmons’ findings in different circumstances, specifically in the context of adolescent athletes, and see how the results may vary. 

Chen’s and Kee’s study involved 169 participants, all of which were asked to fill out an adaptation of the GQ-6 to measure their gratitude. In addition, they were asked to fill out questionnaires to self-assess their satisfaction with their sense of accomplishment, teammates and coach and life in general, as well as other factors like physical exhaustion. 

When comparing results, Chen and Kee corroborated Emmons’ and McCullough’s findings, as an increase in gratitude was correlated to mental and emotional well being, as well as higher life satisfaction and optimism. However, Chen and Kee also found that those who scored higher in gratitude were less likely to experience athlete burnout. In this experiment, Chen and Kee defined athlete burnout as a decreased sense of accomplishment and exhaustion, both physical and emotional, that may result from the stress of participating in athletics. 

Even when tested in different contexts, the results of experiments using the GQ-6 test were consistent, consistently showing that gratitude results in improved perception of life satisfaction, emotional and mental state and response to stressors that arise. 

In order to practice regular gratitude in day to day life and reap the benefits that come along wit this, Emmons believes that an understanding of what gratitude itself is is necessary.

“[Gratitude]’s an affirmation of goodness,” Emmons told the Greater Good Magazine. “We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.”

Freshman Evelyn Lai views gratitude as not only recognizing the good things in life but expressing this gratitude to the people in her life. 

“Gratitude is when you’re thankful for something or someone that you have, and you realize that you’re lucky to have that because not everyone may be able to have what you have,” Lai said. “I thank the people in my life everyday, [like] to teachers. And when my mom helps me out, I always thank her, and I always say I love you.”

Like Lai, sophomore Angela Guo also practices thankfulness by applying it to situations in her life. For example, she often expresses gratitude to her friends, such as when one of them brought her a cupcake for her birthday or when another friend gifted her school supplies. 

Emmons’ beliefs mirror this, as he feels that gratitude is not only comprised of acknowledging the positive aspects of life but also recognizing the events that caused these feelings of thankfulness. 

“The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from,” Emmons told Greater Good Magazine.”We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Though Thanksgiving certainly serves as a reminder to give thanks, exercising consistent gratitude is one way to reap its maximum benefits. Regardless of the numerous positive effects, Guo believes regular thankfulness should still be practiced, even when Thanksgiving has long since passed.

“The way [you] show gratitude actually helps [people] to feel emotionally better,” Guo said. “it’s not only a one time thing. Throughout your entire life, you should do something good to other people.”

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