“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher
We humans are natural problem solvers. We have an inbuilt desire to strive, to improve, to progress. And if we’re not careful, this can lead to an unhealthy imbalance in our lives in which we become obsessed with our problems – what we are not, have not, want not – and take for granted the good things we all have and enjoy.
Take Midas, that famous king of Greek mythology. Midas was rich, filthy rich actually – but he just wanted more. And so when it was his turn to pull in a favour from his nearest obliging Greek deity, he asked that everything he touched should be turned into gold. Unsurprisingly, he was soon regretting his decision. Whenever he tried to eat, his food turned to gold and, when his young daughter reached out to touch him, well, she turned to gold, too. A despairing Midas pleaded with the gods to relieve him of his power and reunite him with his daughter. Midas had been taught the hard way to be grateful for what he took for granted.
Now, I doubt anybody is going to be offering you any superpowers any time soon, but this is a good time for us to remind ourselves that we too need to strike the right balance in our lives between striving on the one hand and gratitude on the other. We don’t want to be like Midas – obsessed with what we don’t have and lacking in any appreciation for what we do – and in fact redressing that imbalance can have untold benefits for our lives and general wellbeing.
To show you how, I’ve dived into the research in this up and coming field to demonstrate how gratitude has a direct impact on your satisfaction with life, and how practicing it can not only enhance your life, but protect you in its more turbulent moments too.
1. The link between gratitude and wellbeing
First things first, how do we even know that gratitude impacts wellbeing in the first place? This study by researchers in the UK addressed itself to precisely this question by quantifying the impact that gratitude has on satisfaction on life once you have accounted for the differences caused by the Big 5 personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and their accompanying facets or behaviours. Their survey of 389 adults showed that, once you had taken these personality variables out of the picture, gratitude alone still accounted for 9% of the variance in reported satisfaction with life. In other words, gratitude as a unique variable has been demonstrated to have a significant qualitative impact on your satisfaction with life – reason enough for us to spend a little more time thinking about how we can nurture this quality in ourselves.
2. How gratitude enhances wellbeing
Now that we have established that there is indeed a demonstrable link between gratitude and wellbeing, we would be well served to think about how we can implement it in our own lives. The key thing about gratitude, you see, is that it is something that can be deliberately practiced. Whereas other aspects of personality and behaviour may be more rigidly entrenched, a sense of gratitude is something that any one of us can deliberately foster to the advantage of ourselves and those around us – as our next study demonstrates. In this experiment, researchers had one group keep a gratitude journal, while another group recorded only hassles and a third recorded neutral events as a control. In every instance, the group that practiced gratitude significantly outperformed the other groups on a range of life satisfaction indicators, reporting a greater sense of overall wellbeing, more positivity about the upcoming week, and a greater sense of connectedness with others. Furthermore, this group also reported benefits relating to duration and quality of sleep, and the changes were noted on by subjects’ closest personal relationship. In other words, when somebody who has not deliberately practiced gratitude before begins a habit such as gratitude journaling, they can expect to notice a beneficial impact on their quality of life as a result of the exercise.
3. How gratitude fosters resilience
Gratitude is not all about enhancing our lives though. A grateful person is also a more resilient person, and recent studies have suggested that adopting a gratitude mindset can be just as valuable in helping us through difficult and stressful times. In this third study, researchers took a group of first year undergraduates who had just left home for the first time, surveying them right at the beginning of their first semester and then again at the end of it. The results of these surveys indicated that students who displayed higher levels of gratitude were likely to report higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression. Again, the researchers took care to separate these results from the effects of other personality traits, leading them to the conclusion that overall gratitude is key to the development of social support and in protecting individuals from stress and depression.
So there you have it, gentlemen – the science-backed benefits of gratitude in all their splendour. If you’ve read this far, well then I am very grateful – and I hope you will remember to be grateful in your life too.
For, as Aesop once said, gratitude truly is the mark of a noble soul.
Cambridge graduate. Writer and thinker. Life enthusiast.