Should I encourage students to keep a gratitude journal?
Think of a person in your life you’re grateful for—why are you grateful for them?
This is a standard prompt for one of the oldest and most reliable gratitude interventions ever studied: the gratitude journal.
A few years ago, right around the holidays, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a New York Times op-ed declaiming the perils of gratitude journals, gratitude letters, and other exercises designed to strengthen your appreciation muscle.
“All you have to do is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow,” Ehrenreich observed, skeptically. “If there is any loving involved in this, it is self-love.”
Research shows that, in fact, the emotional experience of gratitude is complex.
One finding: Gratitude is uplifting. Thinking about people who have helped you feels good, particularly insofar as it reinforces your sense of social connection.
And yet, at the very same time, gratitude brings a sense of indebtedness. After all, the researchers point out, “People feel grateful when they recognize that someone has done something for them that they did not necessarily earn.”
Indebtedness, in turn, motivates action. In other words, gratitude is a sense of abundance that, rather than turning your attention inward, inclines you to reach out and help others.
For example, when I wrote my belated letter of gratitude to Walter Mischel, I was reminded to pay forward his kindness. Remembering how generous Walter had been with his time made me realize how comparatively stingy I can be with mine. Soon afterward, when a colleague asked if I would read and comment on the paper he was preparing, I leapt at the opportunity.
Don’t mistake gratitude for self-love. In fact, gratitude heightens connections and feelings of indebtedness to others.
Do take a moment to think about a person in your life who has been kind to you in some way—and how you can pay it forward. Your generosity may, in turn, spark another’s gratitude, creating a ripple effect of goodness.
The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.