Gratitude: Intrinsic Virtue or Self-Help Intervention? Paradoxical Effects of Expressing Gratitude to Help Oneself
David Cregg, M.A., Doctoral Student, The Ohio State University
Gratitude is an orientation toward affirming the goodness in life, accompanied by a recognition that the source of this goodness lies with a benefactor (e.g., Emmons & Stern, 2013 ). Historically, gratitude has been understood by philosophers and theologians as an intrinsic virtue – that is, something expressed because it is valuable in its own right, a proper response to a benefit, rather than a means to an end (Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2.106; McConnell, 2016 ). However, the advent of “gratitude interventions” in psychology has encouraged the promotion of gratitude as a self-help exercise to boost happiness. Though well-intentioned, previous research suggests that such efforts to seek happiness for its own sake may paradoxically undermine well-being (Mauss et al., 2011 ). In this talk, I will present examples of this cultural shift in the understanding of gratitude in both academic and popular psychology, and then discuss the consequences of this transition using results from a recent experiment. In this experiment, we investigated paradoxical effects that result from expressing gratitude for self-focused (vs. other-focused) motivations. Participants (N = 200) were randomly assigned to write and deliver a gratitude letter using three rationales: self-focused (emphasizing benefits to the self), other-focused (emphasizing benefits to the recipient), and neutral (no rationale). The neutral group reported lower well-being on several well-being measures compared to the other groups. The other-focused rationale led to greater spirituality and search for meaning than self-focused, whereas the self-focused rationale lowered negative affect. Furthermore, these group differences were moderated by overvaluing happiness, i.e., the belief that if one does not feel happy, then something is wrong with him/her. Individuals higher in overvaluing happiness benefited from the other-focused rationale, whereas those lower in overvaluing happiness benefited from the self-focused rationale. These results suggest that expressing gratitude for self-help reasons (rather than seeking solely to benefit others) can lead to poorer well-being, particularly when achieving happiness is a central aim in individuals’ lives. I will close with a brief discussion of the need to recover a sense of gratitude as a virtue with intrinsic value in the mental health professions.