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In positive psychology, the term “gratitude” can be defined conceptually as a worldview adopted by individuals that inclines towards observing and valuing the positive aspects of life occurrences. (A. M. Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Research had demonstrated the various benefits of practicing gratitude in our day-to-day lives, particularly in the psychological, emotional and physical domains. (McCullough, Tsang, & Emmons, 2004; A. M. Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2009; A. M. Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008). While the practice of gratitude is largely beneficial in most instances, this paper argues that the positive effects of gratitude can be moderated by various factors such as gender, culture and social standing/appropriateness and that the practice of gratitude may be maladaptive under certain circumstances. Two theories had been proposed to explain the specific psychological mechanism behind the practice of gratitude. They are the schematic hypothesis (A. Wood, Maltby, Stewart, Linley, & Joseph, 2008) and the coping hypothesis (A. M. Wood, Joseph, & Linley, 2007).
The schematic hypothesis assumes that gratitude occurs as an outward emotion as a result of obtaining help from external agents that is driven by altruistic motives that is perceived to be valuable and costly to provide. According to the schematic theory, individuals possess definitive schemas that guide individuals in situations that require help to be given. On the other hand, the main premises of the coping hypothesis for explaining gratitude practice is that individuals who practice gratitude often have more accessibility to social support resources, reframes the existing problem in a positive perspective while looking out for opportunities for growth and finally, avoids dealing with the presenting issue(s) using maladaptive approaches such as substance abuse. Using these theories as a basis for research, numerous studies had been conducted to examine the link between gratitude and positive psychological, emotional and physical outcomes. In a study examining the link between gratitude and personality traits, it was found that gratefulness was strongly linked to desirable Big Five personality traits such as extroversion, agreeableness and openness to experiences (A. M. Wood et al., 2009). Individuals with these traits tend to exhibit better emotional self-regulation and resilience, and are hence less vulnerable to psychopathologies such as depression (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh; Larkin, 2003). As such, they are also found to have higher levels of life satisfaction as a result of having a positive outlook towards life (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). However, the above study is correlational in nature and does not prove causality; therefore one cannot establish if practicing gratefulness indeed causes positive health outcomes as a result of the exhibition of desirable personality traits found under the Big Five personality traits. Apart from positive outcomes associated with the gratitude trait and personality, the expression of gratitude was found to enhance social relationships in numerous studies. In a study that examined the role of gratitude on subjective well-being on young teenagers taking into consideration gender differences, higher levels of gratitude positively predicted family support, an important component of social relationship in early adolescence (Froh, Yurkewicz, & Kashdan, 2009). Another study that examines the link between the fundamental psychological elements that precedes gratitude and subsequent relationship formation found a strong link between the expression of gratitude and better future relationship outcomes in the form of maintaining and enhancing the quality of relationships (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008).
Although the display of gratitude may be beneficial under certain instances, there may be circumstances where the display of gratitude could be seen as less than ideal to the receiving party too. It was found that the inappropriate expression of gratitude could be translated as feeling indebted towards the party offering gratitude and hence a sense of obligation develops (Solomon, 1995). However, it is important to point out that gender differences moderates the perception of gratitude across genders (Kashdan, Mishra, Breen, & Froh, 2009). In addition, research on gratitude defined affectively as a moral virtue linked excessive and inappropriate displays of gratitude to a sense of helplessness on the part of the receiver of the gratuitous act (Carey, Clicque, Leighton, & Milton, 1976). In particular, when gratitude is used in place of offering apologies to the other person, this would also induce a sense of helplessness towards the receiving party of the gratitude practice. However, the extent to which the sense of helplessness occurs depends largely on whether there was a clear breach of social code in a given cultural context (Mehrabian, 1967).
In sum, existing literature does provide clear evidence of instances where the expression of gratitude may become counterproductive. Having explored the advantages and potential drawbacks of exhibiting gratitude to others, the next part of this paper shall explore on the various methods in which we can use to apply gratitude practice in our everyday living. The means in which gratitude may be practiced in our daily lives differs according to intensity and duration. One method of expressing gratitude in everyday life involves the maintenance of a gratitude journal on a daily basis. In the journal, the individual may list down three occurrences or realization that they are grateful for. By writing these instances down and literally “counting their blessings”, the salience of positive experiences becomes more apparent to the individual who is keeping the journal and this helps to overcome any possible negative biases from dominating one’s overall thought processes. The efficacy of keeping a gratitude journal had been documented in various studies (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008; Geraghty, Wood, & Hyland, 2010). Another more elaborate method of expressing gratitude involves writing a gratitude letter and personally delivering the letter to the recipient. The use of a gratitude letter to convey gratitude was researched within the school setting and was found to have a significant effect on the subjective well-being of the participants of the study (Froh et al., 2008).
In the final analysis, gratitude practice confers a variety of benefits to psychological and subjective well-being and is predictive of positive psychological, emotional and physical outcomes in many instances. However, while gratitude may be beneficial in many instances, one should also be aware that excessive and inappropriate expression of gratitude can result in possible learned helplessness on the part of the receiver and therefore result in resentment towards the other party that offers the act of gratitude. There are a variety of methods one can engage in gratitude practice in their everyday lives. The methods include but are not limited to keeping a gratitude journal and writing a gratitude letter personally to an intended recipient. In addition, it should be noted that individual, gender and culture differences exists in the expression of appropriate levels of gratitude in interpersonal relationships.
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