The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties.

For example, one study found that grateful people are more likely to sacrifice individual gains for the benefit of the community; another found similar correlations between gratitude and empathy, generosity, and helpfulness. In one experiment, restaurant patrons gave bigger tips when servers wrote “Thank you” on their checks.

Multiple studies suggest that people who are more grateful are typically happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and relationships. It is little wonder that several studies suggest that gratitude is one of the strongest indicators of good mental health. In fact, there is evidence that gratitude may be uniquely important to building one’s mental resilience to hardship. For depression, gratitude helps the brain emphasize positive experiences rather than focus on the bad ones; subsequently, it also helps with sleep, since grateful dwell less on bad experiences just before bed. Gratitude promotes positive ways of coping with life’s difficulties, since one is likely to seek support from people they are grateful for, and to view bad experiences as gracious learning opportunities. Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.

Because gratitude seems to be a strong determinant of people’s well-being, several psychological interventions have been developed to increase gratitude. In one study, a set of participants tested several different gratitude exercises—such as thinking about a living person for whom they are grateful, writing about someone for whom they are grateful, and writing a letter to someone they are grateful—while the control group was asked to describe their living room. Those engaging in gratitude exercise showed increased positive emotion immediately after the exercise, especially the ones who were asked to think about a person for whom they are grateful. Moreover, participants who already had grateful personalities displayed the greatest benefit from these gratitude exercises.

In another study about gratitude, participants were randomly assigned to one of six therapies designed to improve their quality of life. The best results came from the “gratitude visit”, wherein participants wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude to someone in their life. Specifically, they experienced a significant increase in happiness scores and a significant decline in scores of depression—which last up to one month after the visit.

But the longest lasting effects were associated with “gratitude journals”, in which participants were asked to write down three things they were grateful for every day. These participants’ happiness scores also increased and continued to increase each time they were tested periodically after the experiment; indeed, in most cases the greatest benefits were found six months after treatment began. The results were so good that even participants were only asked to continue the journal for a week, many of them continued to keep the journal long after the study was over. Two other studies made a similar finding.

In short, gratitude isn’t something that should just be relegated to just one holiday or limited only to spectacularly good events. It should be, to the best of our ability, a constant exercise, as common to our daily lives as eating or drinking. Speaking for experience, few things have helped me through tough times and recurring battles with depression and anxiety as gratitude; remembering all the wonderful folks out there who have supported and encouraged me throughout my life, as well as those little things like a warm bed, good food, etc., has made my life seem so much better. It is not easy to keep this in mind at all time, but it is definitely worth it.

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