Your Brain on Gratitude

Assistant Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens explains the science of being thankful.

Leah Dickens
Assistant Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens

Assistant Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens spends a lot of time counting her blessings — because her job as a social psychologist is to explore the emotional experiences of pride and gratitude, and how these feelings can be beneficial to a person’s self and relationships. In preparation for Thanksgiving, we asked Dickens to share some of her research.

What are the psychological benefits of gratitude?

Work that I’ve been involved in shows that a state of gratitude can lead you to help not only the person who helped you, but also push you to help someone else. We’ve found that gratitude seems to be able to help you emphasize long-term gains rather than short-term immediate gratification.

A lot of the research on gratitude has focused on these sorts of personal and relational benefits. Gratitude seems to help people form bonds with others and maintain those bonds over time. Studies have looked at sorority sisters and found that gratitude toward a big sister [an older mentor] predicts feelings of inclusion and integration in the sorority later on.

I also did a project looking at what are called gratitude interventions. Rather than making someone feel grateful in the moment, you’re trying to get them to practice an activity that boosts their levels of gratitude. A common intervention is gratitude journaling, where people write down what they feel grateful for at the end of every day. Although it’s a small effect, this simple activity can make people feel happier and more satisfied with their lives over time.

Some literature on gratitude interventions has shown effects for physical health benefits, but some hasn’t. However, if gratitude can help build stronger relationships where people feel more connected, one can imagine that would be beneficial for health. A lot of work shows negative health outcomes for people suffering from loneliness and exclusion, while social support is linked with better outcomes.

How do psychologists measure gratitude scientifically?

We can experimentally induce states of gratitude in participants and then see what they do and how they feel. The easiest way to make someone feel grateful is to have them recall a time in their lives when they felt grateful and ask them to write about it for a few minutes. Just thinking about an emotional experience can reinstill that state of mind.

The more elaborate way to induce gratitude in the lab is to have a participant come and do a study that involves tedious tasks on the computer that are somewhat time consuming, and then when they’re about to finish with that work, the computer appears to crash. In social psychology we often use what are called confederates, who are assistants who pose as participants but they’re working for the research team. In this study, we have a confederate in the room who offers to help fix the computer, therefore saving the participant the time of waiting around and the hassle of redoing all those boring tasks. The idea is the participant now feels grateful to the confederate for their help and assistance. It’s often effective, but I have not tried it at Kenyon for fear our students will be too suspicious, that they’ll know something’s up.

Although Thanksgiving is a time to focus on gratitude, the frustrations of travel and family conflict can be overpowering. What’s your advice for anyone stressed out by the holidays?

Gratitude is all a matter of perspective, and practicing gratitude is a skill. Sometimes you have to try, and it has to be a conscious effort to recognize the things you should be grateful for, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. If in the Thanksgiving chaos you can take a moment to realize “my family can be really stressful but I do really love them, and I am grateful that I have a week off to spend with them,” you can manage to change your perspective.

How do you incorporate gratitude into your teaching?

I teach “Positive Psychology,” a 300-level class open to both majors and non-majors that focuses on the science of the good life, or the life well lived. I love to bring gratitude into my classes, so I have my students try a gratitude intervention for themselves. For some people they’ll start journaling and maybe at first it’s really hard but after a week it’s really simple.

I have them do other things that research suggests might be good for well being, so I ask them to do a random act of kindness to see how it makes them feel and how it makes another person feel. I give them $5 to spend on themselves and $5 to spend on someone else, so they can see how that makes them feel in both of those contexts.

Why does it sometimes feel better to give than to receive?

When you spend money on yourself, it can make you feel good in that moment. But when you spend money on someone else, you’re thinking about that person, you’re trying to figure out what would make them happy and you’re also imagining what their reaction will be. Doing something nice for someone can be a really positive feeling that can be more emotionally impactful. It makes you feel good, it makes another person feel good and it helps build that relationship. 

How does studying gratitude cross over to other disciplines?

There are all these undertones of gratitude as a virtue in both a religious context and a philosophical context, so I’d love to teach “Positive Psychology” as an interdisciplinary class, where students are reading more philosophy papers or religious texts. Already, I have sections devoted to spirituality and religion, I have times that we discuss what is the life well lived, we talk about relationships, we talk about creativity and music and art. Gratitude is intuitively interesting to so many people, and a lot of what we talk about connects with students who take philosophy and music and religion classes. Having all these different perspectives is kind of fun. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.