Reflection, Recognition and Expression: The Science of Cultivating Gratitude

Reflection, Recognition and Expression: The Science of Cultivating Gratitude

February 16, 20244 min read

Baylor positive psychology researchers offer three ways to increase gratitude and empathy

Credit: Marina Demidiuk / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Gratitude research delves into the science surrounding human emotions and the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of actively expressing gratefulness. Leading Baylor University positive psychology researchers Sarah Schnitker, Ph.D., and Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., who specialize in the study of gratitude, have identified three science-based mechanisms that can cultivate gratitude and improve empathy. This work is especially timely during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

Through the examination of previous studies and the broader literature on the process and benefits of gratitude, the associate professors of psychology and neuroscience have discovered that some previous understandings of gratitude may not tell the whole story. By engaging gratitude in a way that benefits the whole community, the researchers identified ways to engage in gratitude that move the emotions of gratitude beyond a fleeting feeling and become virtuous through helping others.

“Gratitude does seem to increase well-being, but not all the time,” Schnitker said. “It sometimes decreases depression and anxiety symptoms, but not always. It makes you more generous, more kind, more caring, but again, not always,” Schnitker said. “[That’s why] we’ve been looking at how to cultivate gratitude in such a way as to really impact flourishing. Not just individual well-being, but also the well-being of other people around them.”

Deep reflection

Through intentional deep reflection of what we are grateful for, we can move past the cycle of “hedonic adaption” – a theory that proposes people will quickly return to a baseline level of happiness, despite the effects of major positive or negative life events – and into a positive emotional state of gratitude.

“You have to pay attention and be intentional about reflecting,” Schnitker said. “Part of the reason is that, like a hedonic treadmill, we get used to our current state; it becomes part of the background, and it no longer benefits our well-being.”

Schnitker describes intentionally recognizing who and what you are grateful for as a tool that leads to feelings of greater happiness and connection.

“What we find is that by incorporating practices that engage deep reflection – that are structured and effortful – it will lead to higher levels of life satisfaction and gratitude,” she said.

Recognizing a giver

When you recognize the person for whom you are grateful, you begin to move from feeling thankful for that person to feeling thankful to that person. Schnitker suggests writing gratitude letters to acknowledge those for whom we feel grateful.

“Go beyond being thankful and think about the giver; whether that is God or someone else in your life, take the time to deeply consider them,” Schnitker said. “The suggestion of writing a letter over a list is effective in that you are addressing it to someone outside of yourself, and it can build deeper connections.”

Jenae Nelson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate in Schnitker’s Science of Virtues Lab at Baylor, has found that expressions of gratitude through letter writing towards an entity increased empathy and transcendent indebtedness in participants significantly more than writing a gratitude list. Participants who felt transcendent indebtedness, or a desire to pay it forward, were much more generous in charitable donations than those who just felt gratitude during the experiment.

“This is compelling evidence that gratitude has to work in harmony with other prosocial emotions such as indebtedness and empathy to promote generosity, which are only activated when someone thinks about a person to whom they are grateful,” said Nelson.

Outward expression

The act of outwardly expressing thankfulness to the giver, whether that is a human, nature or God, can transform it from a temporary feeling into virtuous gratitude. It is the intentional effort of action that contributes to the flourishing of other people.

“So many of the studies will have people just write a letter and not necessarily send it,” Schnitker said. “Writing the thank-you note and sending it – either electronically or in the mail – may enhance the impact of the gratitude practice. Expressing gratitude is a natural response and can compound its benefits because both the recipient and giver of thanks can experience an increase in positive emotions.”

Essentially, you might not be able to thank the person directly, but expressing your gratitude outwardly could lead to expansive generosity. Research suggests that people treasure feeling thanked. It boosts their own well-being, especially in Western societies and the cultural context of the United States.

"So have the courage to reach out and thank them," Schnitker said.

Gratitude expressed with these components and mechanisms promotes well-being for both self and those around you.

“We find that when people feel that genuine gratitude, not only do they want to pay it back, but they also want to pay it forward,” Schnitker said.

Connect with:
  • Sarah A. Schnitker, Ph.D.
    Sarah A. Schnitker, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Psychology & Neuroscience

    Sarah A. Schnitker is an expert in the study of patience, self-control, gratitude, generosity, and thrift.

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