Giving Thanks All Year Long

The Roman philosopher Cicero postulated, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” With Thanksgiving behind us, Americans were compelled to list all the things for which we were thankful. But, what makes some people grateful only one Thursday each fall, and others enjoy an attitude of gratefulness throughout the entire year?

Many studies have found that having a grateful disposition increases overall well-being. People who are self-rated, as well as rated by observers, as having a grateful disposition also experience a positive affect, exhibit pro-social behaviors such as giving, comforting, rescuing, and helping others, and regularly practice spirituality or religion. Gratitude also is negatively associated with traits such as envy and materialism.

Psychology researchers have characterized gratitude as a moral affect, similar to emotions such as empathy and guilt. Gratitude, under this definition, has 3 functions: a moral barometer that helps recipients perceive and respond to another person’s beneficial actions, a moral motive that motivates recipients to engage in pro-social behaviors toward others, and a moral reinforcer that encourages benefactors of pro-social behaviors to engage in the same behaviors in the future. Gratitude, in these cases, is related to an individual’s cognition and behavior in a moral domain.

A recent study outlined individual differences in levels of gratitude that influenced the amount of gratitude experienced after receiving aid. People with higher levels of so-called trait gratitude reported higher levels of “state gratitude” after receiving aid or reading stories of people receiving aid. The individuals with higher trait gratitude saw the help received as more valuable, more costly to provide, and more altruistic. The positive descriptions of aid also influenced future pro-social behavior and state gratitude.

A leading professor of psychology, Robert Emmons, published a book last year outlining 10 tips for increasing feelings of gratitude. He found, through years of research, that people who regularly practiced gratitude exercised regularly, complained of fewer illnesses, and reported better overall well-being and quality of life. His research is consistent across all populations, including age groups, health conditions, and socioeconomic status.

Emmons’s most important suggestion is maintaining a daily gratitude journal. People who record what they are grateful for are able to look back at their life and reaffirm their good fortune. He also advises remembering the bad times. If people do not remember what it was like to be sick or unemployed, they may not appreciate their good health or secure job when they have it.

Emmons also suggests people ask themselves daily what they have done — good and bad — for another person. He recommends appreciating the senses, using visual reminders, and learning prayers of gratitude to cultivate feelings of thankfulness. People must also make a promise to practice gratitude daily, Emmons claims. An attitude of thanksgiving is difficult to maintain, and must be a daily routine. Speaking positively and behaving in a grateful manner can also encourage feelings of thankfulness. Last, Emmons suggests always looking for new situations and opportunities to show your gratitude.

Feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving should not exist only one day each year. Actively seeking out occasions to practice gratitude on a daily basis may lead to countless improvements in quality of life and overall well-being.


Michael E. McCullough, Robert A. Emmons, Jo-Ann Tsang (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82 (1), 112-127 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.82.1.112

Michael E. McCullough, Shelley D. Kilpatrick, Robert A. Emmons, David B. Larson (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin, 127 (2), 249-266 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.127.2.249

Michael E. McCullough, Jo-Ann Tsang, Robert A. Emmons (2004). Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86 (2), 295-309 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.86.2.295

Alex M. Wood, John Maltby, Neil Stewart, P. Alex Linley, Stephen Joseph (2008). A social-cognitive model of trait and state levels of gratitude. Emotion, 8 (2), 281-290 DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.2.281

Emmons RA. Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 2007.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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