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Why Be Grateful?

We’re halfway through the Gratitude Challenge for August, and I have delighted in reading people’s daily (or sporadic) posts on our Facebook page. Your gratitude has lifted my spirits through some rough spots this month. But why does this happen? What does gratitude do for us –- and for the people we love?

In Flunking Sainthood I wrote about research that people who regularly expressed gratitude enjoy a number of advantages, including:

  • Better health
  • Longer lives
  • 25% more happiness (seriously, someone actually measured this)
  • A better night’s sleep, and
  • Happier marriages

But since I wrote the book, I’ve been interested in other experiments in the growing field of “gratitude research.”

In one experiment, students were given different topics on which they had to write a paper. Some students were then given scathing criticism of their papers, while others were praised lavishly.

Then all the students were given the opportunity to go up against their teachers/ graders in a computer game. Not surprisingly, the students who had been sharply criticized retaliated in kind during the game, blasting the heck out of the perpetrators who had made their lives miserable. The ones who had been praised were not aggressive in the game.

And then things got really interesting. There was one exception to the rule about students who had been criticized turning around and retaliating.  This was a small group of the mocked students who had been assigned in their papers to enumerate the things they were grateful for in their lives.

Here’s the thing: those students who had written about gratitude didn’t react negatively to the criticism they received on their papers. They did not retaliate in the computer game.

Apparently, the simple act of counting their blessings had given them enough positive reinforcement about their lives that any criticism of their papers just rolled right off them.

I could use some more of that in my life! So that’s an example of what gratitude can do for the person who feels and expresses it. But what happens to the people around us when we express gratitude? How might gratitude make us better colleagues, friends, or spouses?

Some researchers at the University of Kentucky decided to find out. In one experiment, some people at the university had their computers sabotaged. (The research subjects only knew was that their computers weren’t working, not that the machines had been tampered with.)

The goal of the experiment was to assess how the victims responded to the students sent to fix their computer problems—and what happened when they interacted with other people after that.

Bottom line: the victims whose computers were fixed were more likely later that day to go out and help a total stranger with something entirely unrelated to the computer incident.

In other words, they were ready to be helpful -- in whatever situation arose, to whomever might need it, not just directly to the person who fixed their computers. They paid their gratitude forward. Other people’s kindness to them resulted in their own kindness to others.

Let’s go and do likewise.


P.S. Quote du jour: “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh


The "thank you" post it and the Winnie the Pooh stamp are both used with permission of

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Bahá'í, Buddhism, Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Hinduism, Interfaith, Islam, Judaism, Mormon, Sikh
Tags: benefits of being grateful, flunking sainthood, gratitude, gratitude project, gratitude research, jana riess, robert emmons, the flunking sainthood gratitude challenge, the gratitude challenge, the templeton foundation


  1. Several forms of the Ignatian examen - an exercise for once or twice a day - begins with recognizing a moment or moments of the day for which one is grateful.

  2. John, thanks for letting me know. I have never done Ignatius’s spiritual exercises—or at least in any serious or sustained way. This sounds marvelous.

  3. thanks for all the comments so far, Jana—I haven’t gotten to your book (it’s here, ready to be read!) Really hopeful about this gratitude period this time—tried it (somewhat half-heartedly) a few years ago but this time it seems to have much more impact for me!  Thanks!!

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