The Science of Happiness and Gratitude

Every November, people across the country make great pilgrimages to be in one another’s company. On Thanksgiving, family, friends, and even strangers sit down and break bread. Why do we do it? Why is this tradition so important? And make no mistake – it is an important tradition. Looking beyond the obvious answers of family and food, gratitude is an important element to the holiday. We demonstrate our gratitude to the connections that bind us together and we strengthen them at events such as Thanksgiving.


Researchers have been looking at the science of gratitude and happiness for some time. In fact, there’s been an explosion of research into the science of happiness over the last decade. As we live increasingly busy, media-driven and technologically-focused lives we’re starting to replace experiences with checklists and tasks. We don’t run marathons for the enjoyment of running, we run them to say we ran a marathon. Our hobbies fill time more than they fill our spirits. The more we work to have free time, the less free time we have. We’ve become stuck on a mouse-wheel of activities, events, and appointments. Which brings us back to the science of gratitude. Gratitude is the missing link between actions and happiness.


We can look at how other cultures embrace gratitude. Why are lunch breaks lasting longer than 45 minutes normal in France? Because they treat food as more than fuel. If we are to show true gratitude to the meal we need to take our time with it – savor it for what it is, what it means to us, and what it symbolizes about who we are with. Buddhists have a term for this – Being Present. I know I’m frequently guilty of thinking about what’s next or what’s already been. We don’t think about lunch, because we’re thinking about what we need to do after lunch. As the master Buddhist teachers say, to be happy, one has to be in the moment, to be in the moment one has to to show acceptance. I’d go one step further and say that it’s easier to show acceptance when we show gratitude.  Thanksgiving gives us a perfect chance to be present and to embrace gratitude.

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself. When you are born a lotus flower, be a beautiful lotus flower, don’t try to be a magnolia flower. If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh


Still not convinced about the importance of gratitude? Let’s look at the science. As we said above, happiness research has received increasing attention from researchers. Early in the millennium scientists identified the importance in what they called ‘positive psychology’. This movement was founded by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD. It focuses on “enhancing what’s good in life rather than fixing what’s wrong.” When researchers looked at what makes us happy, they found it isn’t about having tons of privilege, money, or pleasure. What makes us really happy is our ability to connect with one another. This is true across social stratifications, cultures, and generations. Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, right after we take care of our physiological and safety needs, comes the needs of belonging and love. Look at the chart below, notice how the love / belonging need has the strongest overlap with all the other needs?




Still not convinced about the benefits of gratitude? A 2013 study showed a link between gratitude and physical health. Grateful individuals report literally feeling physically better than ungrateful people. It gets better! Gratitude also improves our psychology health. Negative and toxic emotions decrease as we show increased gratitude. Sleep, empathy, mental strength, and relationship-building to name a few. A great article by Psychology Today talks more about the research behind these findings. Finally, think about the effect that gratitude has on others. When you express gratitude to others it helps you connect and show them how important they are. Harvard Medicine really highlights this point about how gratitude is good for the mental and physical health of others, along with yourself.


In closing, have a happy Thanksgiving! Try not to dwell on tomorrow or what needs to be done at work next week or to get ready for the rest of the holidays. And know we at SeeThru are truly grateful to know you all and hope we can continue this journey together far into the future!