Feeling grateful is associated with a host of mental, physical1,2, and social health benefits3,5. A team of researchers recently delved into gratitude and pro-social behaviors; the term "pro-social" refers to behavior that benefits others, intended to promote social acceptance and friendship. Their research highlights strategies we can use to enhance our experience of gratitude and the social benefits it can provide in our lives.
A Positive Emotional Response
The researchers point out that gratitude is a positive emotional response to specific interactions with people in our lives (such as spouses, children, and parents) and positive experiences (such as a vacation, sunny afternoon, or meaningful conversation). It can be a more general feeling, too, directed at what we value or cherish4 or even a more general character trait we hold within ourselves1,5.
They reviewed 91 research studies that focused on understanding the relationship between gratitude and pro-social behaviors—kindness, generosity, and altruism toward others.
They searched for answers to five questions:
- What is the general relationship between gratitude and pro-social behaviors in the research literature?
- Is this relationship stronger when it occurs in response to direct acts of kindness and generosity (e.g., returning a favor) or indirect acts (e.g., paying it forward)?
- Is it stronger when it occurs with close relationships or with strangers?
- Is it greater in response to a specific act or experience or based in more general reflection?
- In interventions to enhance it, does gratitude have a greater impact on pro-social behaviors when it comes about through memory and reflection or through a task in an experiment?
The Relationship Between Gratitude and Pro-Social Behavior
The researchers synthesized a very large amount of research and boiled it down to some key conclusions. Overall, they found a moderate and positive correlation between gratitude and pro-social behaviors in all 91 studies. This provides strong evidence that the more gratitude someone experiences, the more likely they are to engage in things that help others.
More Key Research Takeaways
The relationship between gratitude and pro-social behavior is stronger when it occurs in response to direct acts of kindness or generosity.
The relationship is stronger when it occurs in response to a specific event where a person is feeling gratitude, as opposed to a more general reflection on how overall grateful a person feels, or how they would rate gratitude overall as a personality trait.
Perhaps surprisingly, there's no difference in the overall strength of the relationship when it occurs in response to people known very well or strangers. This suggests that when we experience something positive with another person and feel grateful, our desire to engage in pro-social behavior is equally strong with a stranger as with someone we know very well.
The relationship is stronger when the gratitude is experimentally induced, rather than recollected through remembering or journaling about a time when one felt grateful. Interventions to enhance gratitude should focus on specific reciprocal exchanges of kindness and generosity.
In addition, future interventions should include an element of direct exercises to induce the feeling of gratitude, potentially through things like economic games, or using activities in which participants must write thank you notes and deliver them to someone who had helped them in the past.6
Recommended For You
1. Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890–905. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005
2. Lavelock, C. R., Griffin, B. J., Worthington, E. L., Benotsch, E. G., Lin, Y., Greer, C. L., . . . Hook, J. N. (2016). A qualitative review and integrative model of gratitude and physical health. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 44, 55–86.
3. Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1. W, 455–469. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00439.x
4. Ma, L. K., Tunney, R. J., & Ferguson, E. (2017). Does gratitude enhance prosociality?: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 143(6), 601-635. doi:10.1037/bul0000103
5. McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J.-A. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112–127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ 0022-35126.96.36.199
6. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410 – 421. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5 .410
Date of original publication: June 16, 2017