How Gratitude Can Improve Your Life

a woman blowing snow
Cultivating a feeling of gratitude can boost well-being, and it turns out, feeling thankful is pretty simple. (Image credit: Fonfred | Shutterstock)

As the new year begins, good things, however small, are happening.

Someone's loved one got a new job in San Francisco. In Charlottesville, a canceled reservation allowed someone else to get a seat on a sold-out train and arrive in time for a wedding. The storybook characters Pooh and Piglet made someone in East Sussex, England, happy, and in Colorado Springs, ever-reliable bacon brightened someone's day.

Grateful people have posted these bright spots on the World Gratitude Map, a crowd-sourcing project with an uplifting mission.

"That is what drove the World Gratitude Map, the idea of giving people the chance to create small moments for themselves to make themselves rich through their own action," said Jacqueline Lewis, one of the project's creators. Lewis is a writer with an interest in resilience, otherwise known as bouncing back.

To post your thankful note to the World Gratitude Map (shown here), email or send a tweet with the hashtag #gratmap. (Image credit: Google Maps)

She compares the map to a journaling exercise in which a person writes down three things for which he or she is grateful every day. Over time, she said, this practice shifts a person's mindset. [7 Tips to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude]

"It is moving your mind over to this place where I think we should all be, which is to keep our eyes on all that is good, beautiful and possible in the world," she said.

The science of feeling good

Positive emotions are challenging to study, because they are difficult to define, "and anything that is hard to define is hard to study," said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

In spite of the challenges, psychologists have begun collecting evidence of the benefits of positive emotions, including gratitude. Psychologist Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, has studied gratitude and defines it in two parts: First, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness in the world, and second, gratitude requires the recognition that the sources of this goodness exists outside of individuals.

Emmons' work suggests not only that gratitude is associated with greater well-being, but that the sentiment and those benefits can be cultivated. For instance, a study he and a colleague published in 2003 showed that those who recorded things that had made them grateful had an improved sense of well-being, slept better and more, felt a greater sense of optimism and connectedness to others. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

"Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits," Emmons and colleague Michael McCullough wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They noted that the benefits are most pronounced when compared to a focus on complaints and hassles.

In general, research has associated the regular practice of gratitude with physical benefits, such a stronger immune system, and higher levels of broad positive emotions as well as social benefits, such as being more forgiving, outgoing and feeling less lonely and isolated, Emmons writes. (The list of benefits compiled by the center is long.)

Sharing with others is an important aspect of gratitude, other research indicates. Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, had people write letters expressing thanks to someone who had a positive impact on them. Some sent their letters to the person; others kept their letters. Those who shared their letters experienced stronger mental-health benefits than those who just wrote the letter, Simon-Thomas said.

The center, in collaboration with UC Davis, has awarded $3 million in grants to improve the scientific understanding of gratitude, including projects that examine the biology of gratitude.

Patron saint for resilience

The remarkable story of one woman's life and death refined Lewis' interest in resilience and inspired the World Gratitude Map.

"I guess the most amazing thing about my mom is she lived a very small life" — she wasn't famous, never had a great job or money, never made any high-profile accomplishments — "but people loved her," Lewis said of her mother Joan Zawoiski Lewis, otherwise known as Joannie from Pringle.

The nickname refers to the small borough in Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania where Joan Lewis was born. "She retained that small-town simplicity," Jacqueline Lewis told LiveScience.

Joan Lewis' life had no shortage of hardship. Her brother was killed in an accident, her sister committed suicide, she nearly died from a massive hemorrhage while giving birth, her husband abused her and her children, and on May 7, 2011, she died of pancreatic cancer.

But it was how her mother died that caught Lewis’ attention. When Joan Lewis was diagnosed, she was told she would have weeks to live.

"My mom says, 'Oh don't make a fuss, just do something nice for somebody today and tell them to think of me,'" Lewis said.

Family and friends throughout the world reported doing good deeds in her name, including feeding the homeless, translating instructions for a non-English speaker, helping a stranger pay for groceries, and other small acts.

"While dying, her focus on these good deeds done by others kept her alive with end-stage pancreatic cancer past all reasonable prognosis," Lewis said. "The [World Gratitude Map] gives the rest of us a chance to move our eyes in the same direction, perhaps derive the same benefit."

Her mother lived 20 months after her diagnosis. Over this time, "I had a chance to marvel about what it was about my mom that made her different than everybody else," Lewis said.

She noted that even during doctors' visits while she was dying, Joan Lewis found a way to move her attention "to what is good and beautiful and possible in the world, and away from what is dismal," Lewis said.

"She just created a good life," Lewis said.

Lewis' collaborators on the World Gratitude Map and a blog about resilience are Rose Cheney and Kate Cheney.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.