From the outside, the practice of gratitude is a relatively simple affair.
But as the study of gratitude shows, it is far more complex than it seems.
The key is to think about how gratitude can be used in a range of different contexts.
What does gratitude mean in everyday life?
What is it like to be grateful?
How do people relate to it?
And what does gratitude actually mean?
How can we use gratitude to improve our lives?
These are just a few of the many questions being asked as researchers look at how gratitude works and what can be learnt from it.
But what is it really?
The word “gratitude” has come to mean different things to different people.
Some people might use it to mean “the feeling of gratitude”, while others use it as a way of expressing gratitude towards others.
“Gratitude is often used to express appreciation or gratitude for others,” explains researcher James Tindall.
“We might say that it’s a way to say that someone did something that we appreciate or that we are grateful for.
But I think people use it more broadly to express gratitude for their own personal relationships, for the community they are a part of, for their loved ones, for themselves.”
It can also be used to describe the feeling of belonging to a group or of belonging in a social setting.
“How grateful is it?
Gratitude can also mean “gracefulness”, “respect” or “acceptance”.”
The study of the brain’s brain areas involved in gratitude shows that we experience gratitude as a response to the things we have received.”
For instance, in many cultures, it’s considered a virtue to be thankful for your own achievements.”
The study of the brain’s brain areas involved in gratitude shows that we experience gratitude as a response to the things we have received.
The brain areas that play a role in this response are known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in processing the benefits of positive reinforcement.
The area also plays a role when we’re grateful for our friends and family.
“What we find in our research is that we can look at gratitude as something that people can do,” says Professor Alan Hallett from the University of Queensland.
“So, for example, people who are grateful to their parents, and they don’t get angry about it, may feel grateful because they feel that they’ve helped someone else.
They feel that there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from that.”
Professor Halleatt explains that the DLPFC also has an important role in the processing of negative emotions such as disgust.
This is why we feel that we’re not grateful enough, and so we feel disgust.
“Our findings suggest that gratitude is part of a larger process of processing what we’ve received, and that this is a process that is linked to our emotions,” he says.
“Gratitudes are also linked to positive affect, so it is part and parcel of our everyday lives.”
Gratification, or the feeling that we receive something, is something that’s known to occur when people experience joy or happiness.
“There’s some evidence that we respond to positive emotions in a positive way, which may lead us to feel gratitude,” explains Halleett.
“And so this is an important aspect of gratitude.”
The research also shows that there are connections between gratitude and empathy.
Gratifications can also affect our relationships with others, and this is part-of the reason why it is thought that gratitude can improve our relationships.
“When we’re feeling grateful, it helps us to connect to others, to feel connected,” says Halleott.
“A person who’s feeling grateful is more likely to feel more connected to people.
And this connection is a very good thing.”
And so what does this all mean?
“When you think about gratitude, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re happy, or that you don’t have problems with people,” says the professor.
“In fact, if we look at the research that shows the positive benefits of gratitude, we know that people are actually happier when they have that kind of connection.”
What this all means is that gratitude may have a positive impact on people’s lives, and it is one of the things that people tend to think is so special about gratitude.
But is it actually so?
Are we really so grateful for what we receive?
Is it really a good thing?
Or are people simply more grateful when they feel more attached to others?
In the next part of this series, we’ll look at what researchers have found about the effects of gratitude on behaviour.
You can follow the latest research and learn more about gratitude in our series on How to Practice Gratification.