Here’s why being grateful leads to happiness (and not the other way around)


Be grateful for the big things, the little things, and everything in between, and happiness will follow.

Experts who study gratitude loosely define it as a sense of appreciation and thankfulness for the good things in life—both big and small—and it may be the fastest route to enduring happiness. Yes, you read that right; many people assume that happy people are simply more grateful, but it’s actually the other way around.

“Gratitude is like fertilizer for the mind,” says Robert Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. It activates multiple brain systems, and does so in ways that support mental and emotional well-being, he adds.

In a series of experiments, Emmons and his colleagues found that when people focused on their “blessings,” as opposed to their hassles or complaints, they significantly increased feelings of joy, happiness, and overall well-being. Study participants who practiced gratitude also slept more soundly, felt more connected to others, offered to lend emotional support to others more frequently, and felt more optimistic. They even enjoyed an 8% reduction in pain scores compared to a control group that didn’t practice gratitude.

With so many positive effects, it’s no surprise that Emmons and his colleagues call the effect of gratitude an “upward spiral”—or the exact opposite of the emotional downward spiral many of us experience as a result of anxiety and negativity.

What makes gratitude so powerful?

“Like a microphone or amplifier, gratitude pumps up the volume on the good in our lives,” Emmons says. Left to its own devices, he says the human brain tends to “hijack” itself. “Negativity, entitlement, resentfulness, forgetfulness, and ungratefulness all clamor for our attention,” he explains. These emotions, coupled with the “doom and gloom” we tend to encounter in the news and elsewhere on a daily basis, are bound to bum us all out. But gratitude helps offset this chronic negativity.

Put another way, he says, our minds take the shape of the thoughts and emotions that flow through them. You can’t expect to feel happy when you’re pumping your head full of worry and anxiety. By focusing on what you’re thankful for in life, gratitude can elbow aside many of those unhappy vibes.

How to feel more grateful

Once a week, sit down and write out five things you recently experienced for which you are grateful. Did you have a nice night out with a friend? Or get some good news at work? The things could be big or small—it doesn’t matter. Just write them down. Emmons’ research shows this activity can pump up your sense of gratitude. (Bonus: Keeping a gratitude journal is also one of these 4 ways to live 7.5 years longer!) To get even more out of the exercise, write thank-you notes, or take time to thank the people you’re grateful for in person. If you want to increase gratitude, “it’s important for us not to keep our thanks silent,” Emmons says. “Gratitude requires action.”

Is there a downside to gratitude?

If thanking or offering your gratitude to someone makes you feel somehow “indebted or obligated” to them, that’s not such a great thing, Emmons says. In that situation, “expressions of gratitude can actually separate or isolate us from others,” he adds.

Trying too hard to be grateful can also backfire—especially if you’re judging yourself based on how well you’re doing with this whole gratitude thing. “If we turn gratitude into a self-focused personal project, the focus becomes ‘how I am doing,’ ” Emmons explains. This isn’t a good thing.