In two ground-breaking studies conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman and his colleagues asked people to express their gratitude and appreciation in two different ways. The first was called the Gratitude Visit, and the second was Gratitude Journaling.
The Gratitude Visit
Seligman invited people to participate in the study in which they were asked and given one week “to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.”
It is a simple enough request. Most of us know of someone who has done something for us, whether it’s a friend, teacher, parent, sibling or perhaps just someone who sells you coffee in a store or who gave you directions but who has not been properly thanked.
To evaluate the impact of this simple request on the well-being and happiness of individuals, they compared the happiness scores of 80 people who did the “gratitude visit” to 70 people who were asked to complete a writing exercise about their early lives (each night for a week).
The results were striking and showed that writing a letter of gratitude and delivering it in person led to a significant improvement in mood that lasted for over a month. Gratitude visits also produced significant increases in happiness immediately after the intervention. In fact, a small benefit from this one single action remained evident even after three months.
Seligman and his colleagues conducted a slightly different version of the gratitude visit in which they asked participants to write down each night for a week three good things that happened to them that day. “Good things” or what went well that day included anything that made them feel happy, proud, hopeful, grateful, relaxed or loved. Participants were also asked to reflect on the role they played in those good things (things that went well that day).
Results of this exercise also showed benefits trackingThe study found 92% of participants became happier in just 15 days. In addition, the positive effects of the exercise lasted for six months or longer.
Why does expressing gratitude provide such benefit?
Although it is not clear how a simple act of gratitude results in immediate and lasting benefits to our well-being, the reasons for this effect likely be found in understanding the importance of values and acting in ways that align with our values for well-being. Most of us are raised with the understanding that we are supposed to say thanks for the good deeds of others. You are supposed to feel gratitude and express gratitude. In this way, expressing gratitude for most of us aligns with our core values of what it means to be a good person.
Acting in line with this value means expressing gratitude for something that someone else did for you is inherently good, and as a result, we feel good. However, it’s not just gratitude that may be important in this exercise but also fairness. Again, most of us grow up with a sense of fairness, and if you have experienced some help, kindness generosity from someone else and have not yet expressed your own gratitude for their consideration, you would have a fairness deficit in the sense that not expressing gratitude is inherently unfair. Being able to write that wrong, in a sense, aligns with our own value of fairness and, in doing so, provides an additional benefit.
What’s the difference between a gratitude visit and a gratitude journal?
Although both of these exercises produce a benefit for happiness and well-being, these are very, very different activities. Psychologists like Leah Dixon argue that there is a fundamental difference between expressing gratitude to another person, which is the essence of the gratitude visit, and being appreciative or thankful, which is captured in a gratitude journal.
As she argues, interpersonal gratitude involves an “other-focused experience.” You need to not only recognize what someone else has done for you, but you must express your gratitude for their efforts face to face. In contrast, appreciation does not require a face to face meeting. Gratitude journaling is more about noticing and enjoying things, including the contributions and efforts of others, but does not require the interpersonal act of thanking someone.
Indeed, thanking someone face to face is far harder than recording your thoughts on paper.
Don’t take our word for it
Even with the results of some great research, it can still be hard to imagine that a simple act of gratitude could produce such benefits for well-being. So, don’t take your word for it. Try it out. Download the gratitude visit worksheet by clicking here. It’s a simple one-page exercise. One side of the page is going to ask you to list 5 to 10 people that have done something for you but have not yet been properly thanked. In the adjacent column, you’ll be asked to write down what it was they did for you. Then, after completing both of these lists, select three people that you would like to thank, decide who you’re going to think of first and then, in the third and final section, write down what you’d like to say. You might say something like this:
I remember [a very long time ago/a while ago] you did something for me. [describe what it was and how it helped you]. I didn’t thank you properly at that time, and I would like to thank you now. That was kind/considerate of you. I am grateful for what you did. Thank you.
Dickens, L. R. (2019). Gratitude Interventions: Meta-analytic Support for Numerous Personal Benefits,with Caveats. In Positive Psychological Intervention Design and Protocols for Multi-Cultural Contexts (pp. 127-147). Springer, Cham.https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-20020-6_6
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. http://dx.doi.org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
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