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Does "counting your blessings" really help?

In celebration of Thanksgiving in the U.S., I’m reposting this piece, originally posted in April, 2008.

ResearchBlogging.orgHow often do you take time to reflect on the things you’re grateful for? Once a month? Once a week, at church, perhaps? Maybe you say “grace” at mealtime every day. But even prayers that do express gratefulness, such as a traditional mealtime prayer, are often expressed by rote. Growing up, my family wasn’t very religious, but when we had dinner with family or friends, we’d usually say grace. I was probably well into my teens before I understood what “blessusolordforthesethygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivefromthybounty” actually meant.

While many would agree that “counting your blessings” is a worthwhile practice, there hasn’t been much experimental research on whether gratitude really has a positive impact on our lives. Several studies have found that gratitude correlates with positive emotions such as happiness, pride, and hope, but experimental work — showing that gratitude causes these things — is scarcer.

Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough figured it would be worthwhile to explore this notion. Their method of study was both ingenious and simple: they would ask 201 students in a health psychology class to respond to a weekly questionnaire. Everyone rated their well-being, was tested on a measure of gratefulness, and reported on their physical health and level of exercise. The key to the study was a division into three groups. The first group listed five things they were grateful for each week. The second group listed five hassles or irritants from the past week. The final group simply wrote down five “events or circumstances” from the past week. This continued for ten weeks.

What sort of things did they write?

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