Can counting blessings really make you happy?

by Delete Me Please

Generally speaking, gratitude is realized in two steps: the first is the realization that you have received something positive, whether it is a gift, a present, a character trait, an idea etc; and secondly, recognizing that the source of this positive outcome is external from one’s self, for example the source might be God, parents, friends, donors etc. Countless studies have shown that gratitude is an attribute, or emotion, or attitude which is correlated and causes happiness, but none have offered empirical evidence, until the 2003 study by Emmons and McCullough.

The following description of the study is inaccurate, but the results of three separate studies were combined to build an overall picture. For the full description of the study, please click here.

Three groups of undergraduate students and adults with neuromuscular diseases were asked to write down either:

  1. 5 things that they are grateful/thankful for (the gratitude group)

  2. 5 things that annoy/bother you (the hassle group)

  3. 5 events that affected you this week (the control group)

  4. Things that makes you better off or more fortunate than others (the downward social comparison group)

They were then asked a series of questions regarding their mood and perspective on life. The results show that the gratitude group realizes significantly higher levels of gratitude than the control group, while the hassle group realized significant, and proportionally lower levels of gratitude than the control group. The more frequent we perform these evaluations, the bigger the impact it has. The gratitude group also had a more positive outlook on life, reported fewer physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, pain, stiff muscles etc; and even resulted in, on average, 1.5 hours more exercise a week than the hassle group. The gratitude was also more inclined to helping others, which can be seen as a consequence of counting blessings. They also feel more connected to others and more integrated in their community. Improved sleep and also the quality of sleep. These effects were obvious to significant-other.

The gratitude level of the downward social comparison was similar to control, and did not give a positive effect; this is probably because pride and schadenfreude (pleasure at the misfortune of others) often manifests itself when comparing yourself to others, rather than gratitude or happiness. So people who feel they are better than others, or persuaded to believe that way, do not receive the benefit of counting blessings. For counting blessings to have a positive effect, one must evaluate oneself using only themselves as the measure, and not others.

Fredrickson have tried to explain this phenomenon of how counting blessing leads to improved life quality; she says that the positive emotions arisen from counting blessings, build a personal, psychological, social and spiritual resource – a sort of resolve which can be utilized in the time of need, to provide social support, to provide motivation etc. (Fredrickson, 1998)

However, the study also warns that gratitude can also have a negative influence, depending on the individual. Some people would feel loved and appreciated when they received from another, and are thankful for it. However, to be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of a recipient—to feel indebted and aware of one’s dependence on others. Many feel that being indebted to someone is an unpleasant feeling because they feel like they are expected to repay the kindness back. (Greenberg & Westcott, 1983; Indebtedness as a mediator of reactions to aid) If not well-received, the recipient might actually produce strong feelings of hatred against their benefactors. (Elster, 1999)

So what does this study tell us? That we should count our blessings regularly, especially when we feel we’ve adapted to past satisfaction and is now not very appreciative of the things you should be appreciative about. To simply be alive is a miracle which we so often overlook. Counting blessings not only makes us feel better about now and the future, it might even be healthier for us, and it’ll make people close to us happier too! So count your blessings and be gracious to others!

But when you receive gifts, receive it with gratitude. Gifts are free, gifts are given because the giver wants you to have it, or even feel grateful to you for something you’ve done! It is a gift and not an obligation! The process of giving with generosity and receiving with gratitude is what strengthen bonds and friendships!

So start today and count your blessings (instead of sheeps)!