Gratitude, day-to-day variations and consistency over time.
Previous research on the positive effects of gratitude has shown that gratitude appears to reduce stress and foster well-being (e.g. Wood et al., 2010). A recent prospective study in which people were instructed to list things they were grateful for on a daily basis supports this notion (Krejtz et al., 2016). However, little if any, research has looked at whether spontaneous (non-directed) changes in gratitude track with well-being and stress response. Rather than being a stable personality characteristic (a “trait”), gratitude may be more of a “state,” varying over the course of time—or perhaps a combination of both. Do daily fluctuations in gratitude correlate with well-being and indicators of happiness, stress, and depression? Furthermore, does gratitude serve as a buffer for stress and negativity, helping to offset toxic effects on more challenging days?
In order to look more closely at how natural day-to-day levels of gratitude may interact with various indicators of well-being and stress, researchers Nezlek, Krejtz, Rusanowska and Holas (2018) followed 131 participants for two weeks, using daily self-assessments to investigate correlations among gratitude and factors related to well-being and stress. Daily measures included gratitude, positive and negative emotional states, self-esteem, depressogenic adjustment (optimism about oneself and life), worry, and rating of important events of the day on how stressful and how positive they were. Participants reported on 10 possible categories for events: family, interpersonal, partner, work, finances, official, health, hobby, values, and other/everyday events.
As in previous studies looking at intentionally cultivated gratitude, researchers found that on every measure, gratitude was significantly correlated with well-being. On days when people felt more grateful, well-being was reported as being higher. Likewise, on higher stress days, participants reported lower well-being, and on lower stress days, participants reported greater well-being.
Using gratitude to buffer stress responses.
Importantly, they found that gratitude did in fact appear to act as a buffer for stress. On days with fewer positive events, gratitude and well-being were more strongly related, suggesting that gratitude may serve to bolster resilience, amplifying lower positive emotions on difficult days or perhaps even providing, essentially, internal positive events to compensate for a lack of external positive events. This is especially noteworthy because people often have difficulty tapping into gratitude when difficulties arise, focusing on negatives with bitterness or pessimism.
Gratitude therefore appears to provision us internally with a positive response when external events fail to do so. For people who are able to muster up gratitude when the going gets rough, not only as a generally characteristic but also as a just-in-time response to stress and negative events, gratitude can be a “bridge over troubled water” that helps to keep us from getting pulled down into a negative spiral of maladaptive coping. People who use gratitude in this way must be able to do so, rather than undermining resilient responses.