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  • Carolyn Prins

Reflecting on Gratitude-Does it Really Make a Difference?

A summary of recent research highlighting the mechanism by which identifying moments of gratitude acts to positively influence well being.


Recently when I was looking through a volume of a psychology journal I read, I came across an article about gratitude that I found intriguing. Researchers at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo, Brazil had explored how writing about gratitude can increase our emotional regulation, and by extension improve our well-being. I wanted to share this research with you to highlight the many aspects of experiencing gratitude as well as to emphasize why reflecting on gratitude is important.


Gratitude is defined as, “...the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation”[2]. It is empirically proven to be connected to increased well being [2], but prior to this study the mechanism by which gratitude acts to influence well-being has been unclear [1]. Building on previous research demonstrating that applied emotional reappraisal predicts an increase in well-being, the study of interest aimed to examine how writing about gratitude affects one’s emotional reappraisal capabilities. Cognitive (emotional) reappraisal is the process by which an individual re-frames and changes the meaning that they attach to an emotional stimulus [3]. For example, consider a student who has just learned that they failed their math test. The student could appraise (frame) the situation as “a disaster,” provoking a negative emotional response such as frustration or anger. In contrast, the student could instead frame the situation as “a setback” or “a challenge,” promoting a response of increased determination and purpose. Emotional reappraisal is important to our well being because it impacts how we emotionally respond to both positive and negative events in our lives.


Participants in the study attended an initial laboratory session during which baseline testing for emotional appraisal abilities was performed and instructions for the upcoming tasks were given. Emotional appraisal was tested through a series of trials in which individuals were instructed to apply a specific emotional appraisal strategy such as up-regulation or down-regulation (increasing or decreasing the strength of your emotions) while viewing sets of positive or negative emotional images. Control trials in which participants passively viewed images were also performed. Following this session, researchers had experimental groups write in an email survey twice weekly for four weeks about personal gratitude stories and experiences. The control group wrote at the same frequency, writing about personal, daily routines that were non-emotional. After the four weeks had passed, the participants returned to the laboratory and read a printout of their eight email surveys, then underwent the emotion reappraisal task once more [1].



"We can experience aspects of gratitude in connection with positive as well as negative life events."




As a result of the study, researchers found that participants who wrote about gratitude were more efficient at accomplishing emotion reappraisal than the control group. A proposed explanation for why this occurred is that writing about gratitude caused participants to reflect on what they had to be grateful for, thereby encouraging a positive perspective on life. Upon analyzing the content of the gratitude stories, it was found that the participants wrote of gratitude being formed from experiences featuring a wide range of emotions, including happiness, guilt, and fear. This is important as it shows that we can experience aspects of gratitude in connection with positive as well as negative life events. The gratitude participants were also found to write with higher complexity, as measured by aspects of cognition such as insight and causation. Insight and causal words are associated with the process of reappraisal, and therefore higher frequency of such words is related to improving emotional reappraisal [1].


In conclusion, the process of reflecting on experiences for which we are grateful is linked to improving our ability to frame and take perspectives on emotional situations we encounter. Our emotions and perspectives of situations impact our wellness because they influence how we react and think about our lives. I encourage you to take time this week to reflect upon events and experiences in your life that you feel grateful for. These experiences could be positive or negative, but it is important to think about aspects of the situation that you feel were beneficial and positive. Being grateful can sometimes be challenging, but its benefits are experienced in many aspects of our lives.


References


1. Boggio, Paulo Sérgio, Ana Carolina Alem Giglio, Caroline Kimie Nakao, Tanja Stefanie Helga Wingenbach, Lucas Murrins Marques, Silvia Koller, and June Gruber. 2019. “Writing about Gratitude Increases Emotion-Regulation Efficacy.” The Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1651893


2. Sansone, Randy A., and Lori A. Sansone. 2010. “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits

of Appreciation.” Psychiatry 7 (11): 18–22.


3. Troy, Allison S., Anna Brunner, Amanda J. Shallcross, Rachel Friedman, and Markera C.

Jones. 2018. “Cognitive Reappraisal and Acceptance: Effects on Emotion, Physiology, and Perceived Cognitive Costs.” Emotion 18 (1): 58.


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