To be good, be grateful.

By Brett Beasley

 

Cicero was right. Gratitude can aid you on your path toward becoming a better person.

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The advice to practice gratitude is as old as recorded history itself. And yet, with each year that passes, scientists add to the long list of proven benefits that gratitude brings to our lives, organizations, and communities. When we practice simple acts like saying “Thank you” and counting our blessings, we tend to see improvements in our mental health. Compared to people who do not practice gratitude regularly, thankful people build relationships more easily, and the relationships they build are stronger. Gratitude even leads to improvements in our physical wellbeing and increases our overall life satisfaction.

Testing the Ciceronian Hypothesis

With this bumper crop of benefits in mind, some scientists recently began to wonder whether gratitude might lead to improvements in other areas of our lives as well. In particular, they wanted to test out what we might call the "Ciceronian hypothesis." Cicero was a Roman orator who lived from 106-43 BCE, and among his many other statements on statesmanship and philosophy, Cicero once made the surprising claim that gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but also the “parent” of the other virtues. So, in short, scientists began to wonder if gratitude might lead not just to good relationships and good feelings but also to a good moral character.

The main scholar behind this new line of research is David DeSteno (Northeastern). Along with several different colleagues, DeSteno has tested out the Ciceronian hypothesis by eliciting gratitude in study participants and then observing whether the treatment affects the participants’ moral behaviors. DeSteno and Monica Bartlett made a major breakthrough in 2006, when they reported on several initial studies of the Ciceronian hypothesis in the journal Psychological Science.

For one study, they invited participants into the lab and asked them to complete several tedious tests on a computer. Some of the participants had been selected at random to have an experience designed to trigger gratitude. It went like this: After these participants had completed their tasks, their computer screens would go blank, and they would receive word that they would have to start from the beginning and do the test all over again. But just at that time, someone they believed was another participant but was in actuality a person who had been coached as part of the study, would intervene and fix their computer, saving them from the extra work. Having made these participants grateful, Bartlett and DeSteno then observed how they behaved when presented with the opportunity to help. It turned out that the participants who experienced gratitude were willing to spend longer helping a person who requested their assistance, and this was true even when that person was a complete stranger.

More recently, DeSteno joined with Fred Duong, Daniel Lim, and Shanyu Kates to put the Ciceronian hypothesis to the test again. The experimental design was similar, but this time DeSteno and his colleagues examined the link between gratitude and an even less related virtue: honesty. Instead of giving participants a chance to help someone at the end of the study, they set up a situation in which participants could easily cheat on a coin toss test without fear of detection in order to gain extra money.

The results were similar to the study on helping. Those participants who experienced gratitude were more likely to report their scores honestly. And the effect was, as researchers put it, “dose dependent”: It wasn’t just the presence of gratitude but also the magnitude of the gratitude that mattered. About 75% of those who experienced low levels of gratitude cheated, compared to 25% of those who experienced high levels of gratitude.

As the research team examines other ways gratitude functions as a “parent” of the virtues, they continue to make new and surprising discoveries. Most recently, Kates and DeSteno found that gratitude may even be an asset in the struggle to develop more ecologically sustainable habits. They assigned participants to play a game that involved using depleting resources. They found that, while many people are tempted to scramble to grab more for themselves as resources disappear, the experience of gratitude buffered against this tendency and caused participants to prioritize the long-term good of the group over their own short-term self-interest.

Put it in Practice

Write a simple “Thank You” note.

While many people recognize that gratitude comes with benefits, most underestimate the benefits. And, when it comes to expressing gratitude to another person, they also overestimate the costs. While we image that saying “Thank you” will make another person feel uncomfortable, we’re often wrong. One of the most simple ways to begin to express more gratitude is to send “Thank you” notes. Most people are more surprised and more pleased to have their contributions recognized than we anticipate.

Practice prayer, meditation, and mindfulness.

One of the best things about gratitude is that it costs us nothing. Most of us already have an ample supply of people, events, and things in our lives to be grateful for. But due to busyness and distraction, we fail to notice and give thanks for them. Having a regular practice that directs our attention and places a pause on distraction can make us more aware of the good things we would otherwise neglect.

Create space for gratitude where it is rare.

Surveys reveal that work is the area of our lives where we are least likely to say “Thank you.” (At work we are likely to think transactionally and tend to mistrust gratitude, thinking that our coworkers are being manipulative, and we imagine they will think the same if we express gratitude.) To get the conversation going, many organizations have created dedicated kudos webpages, emails, or other spaces where colleagues can be recognized and thanked in an informal way for their contributions without the gratitude appearing transactional.

Cicero was right. Gratitude can be the parent of other virtues. Keep in mind, though, that like children virtues grow slowly. And while gratitude can aid you on the path, it won’t take you down it all at once. The key with each of these practices is to have reasonable expectations, start small, and build momentum.

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