Does Gratitude cause Happiness? A Meta-analysis

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The following is a meta-analysis excercise I did for a experimental methods class. It lacks the volume of studies necessary to make it statistically useful, but perhaps it will be interesting for someone else who wants a summary of the effects of Gratitude on Happiness. Feel free to edit/add if I missed an article or there are things left out or missed.



Gratitude has been recently defined in social psychology as a “moral” affect or emotion (McCullough et al. 2001) that encourages pro-social behavior in both the party giving and the party receiving thanks. It is related to the behavior of performing an act of thanksgiving and to the cognition of believing that one has experienced good fortune as a result of something or someone outside oneself. Clearly, gratitude plays a central role in human social relations. Children are taught from an early age to say thank you. It is one of the few social psychology concepts that has a related national holiday (Thanksgiving). Thanking God and acknowledging one’s blessings are central to many religious rites and ceremonies. Gratitude is a pervasive societal concept that has obvious practical social benefits in improving relations between the thankful and the thanked. Yet perhaps equally important is the psychological effect of feeling gratitude and specific to this paper, the relationship between feeling gratitude and happiness. As central as gratitude is to society, little is known about it’s psychological effects. There are many lay and theories about the effect of feeling gratitude. Within psychology, there are also numerous practical ideas about the importance of feeling thankful. In Maslow’s Self Actualization model, Self Actualized people are said to be “incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life” (Huitt 2004). Part of Dr. Martin Seligman’s website on “Authentic Happiness” includes exercises designed to help one feel and express more gratitude, including the Gratitude Visit, which is included in this meta-analysis. In more empirically based psychology work, gratitude has been statistically linked to happiness, pride, and hope in a study of college freshmen (Overwalle, Mervielde, & De Schuyter, 1995). The lack of gratitude has been found to be characteristic of clinically diagnosed narcissistic personalities (McWilliams and Lependorf 1990). Gratitude was found to be rated among the top 5 personal “strengths” in a survey of 24 strengths given in 40 countries (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). In this paper, we will extend the empirical work into this important psychological concept by quantitatively summarizing the effects of gratitude on happiness.


Inclusion Criteria

Gratitude has only recently been a subject of published empirical research and so there are only a few articles which fit the criteria for this meta-analysis. To be included, articles had to a) examine the relationship between gratitude and happiness, b) provide adequate statistics to calculate effect sizes, and c) be accessible via university accessible internet resources including PsychArticles and Google Scholar.

Literature Search

A PsychArticles title search on the term “gratitude” resulted in 2 empirical articles (Emmons & McCullough 2003 and McCullough, Tsang, and Emmons 2004). A subsequent search on the term “grateful” resulted in one additional article (McCullough, Emmons, and Tsang 2002). In order to broaden our search beyond a single research group, we used the Google search engine to find 2 additional articles (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson 2005 and Kasdan, Uswatte, and Julian 2006) using combinations of “gratitude” and “happiness” as search terms. Subsequent scanning of the reference sections of these articles did not result in additional qualifying studies. These 5 articles yielded 10 separate studies which fit our inclusion criteria, which formed the basis for our quantitative meta-analysis. 3 of these studies would be considered experimental (Emmons, McCullough 2003 and Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson 2005).


Across the 10 studies, happiness was measured in different ways. The measurement of happiness can generally be divided into the areas of positive affect, lack of negative affect, life satisfaction, life engagement, and spirituality. Among these studies, only a measure of temporal positive affect was included in each, and so in cases where multiple measures of happiness were included, the measure that was conceptually closest to temporal positive affect was used. In 7 of these studies, the measure was the positive factor of the positive and negative affect scale. In the Kashdan et al. 2006 article, a daily hedonic score was used which incorporated a measure of positive affect minus negative affect. Ideally, a pure positive affect score would have been used, but such a raw score was unavailable. In the Seligman et al (2005) article, the Steen happiness scale was used, which incorporates differing aspects of happiness, but the temporal nature in which it was used suggests that positive affect factor will weigh prominently. The Kashdan, Uswatte, and Julian article actually contained 2 comparison groups for which gratitude and positive affect were measured, veterans with and without post traumatic stress disorder. Statistics were reported for each group and so for the purposes of this analysis, each group was treated as a different observation.


Paper Study # original stat. N weight r fisher r to Z p-value * measure

2 r=.53 1228 1225 0.53 0.59 0.001 pos affect

2 F=3.28 152 149 0.1518 0.153 0.05 pos affect 3 F=5.18 65 62 0.2717 0.279 0.05 pos affect

No PTSD d=.17 35 32 0.0847 0.085 0.67 daily hedonic

2 r=.38 112 109 0.38 0.4 0.001 pos affect

Converting the resulting average Z score back to an r correlation yields an r effect size of .448 which would be classified as medium to large, closer to the large end of the spectrum (Johnson and Eagly, 2000) with an average p-value under .05. Among the results, only the non-PTSD population in the Kashdan et al. (2006) study yielded a non-significant result. A test for homogeneity yields a chi-squared difference of .20, which suggests that the results across studies was consistent.


A quantitative analysis of the effect of gratitude on positive affect confirms conventional wisdom. Specifically, there appears to be a significant, consistent, and sizeable effect of gratitude on positive affect. This effect was confirmed in both experimental and correlational studies. It was found in a diverse set of populations including adults on the internet, college students, and in clinical populations. Given these findings, gratitude can be still be thought of as a moral emotion which regulates our behavior in order to promote social ties. But we should not discount the significant self-serving benefits of being thankful. Happiness researchers often talk about the existence of a hedonic treadmill, which points out that the kinds of things that most people focus on to improve our happiness do not have the consistent effects that we might expect. In contrast, gratitude appears to be a promising candidate as a route to effecting lasting increases in personal well being.


(Emmons, Robert A., McCullough, Michael E. 2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 84 (2), pp. 377-389

(Huitt, W. 2004). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date] from,

(Johnson, B. and Eagly, A. 2000) Quantitative Synthesis of Social Psychological Research Handbook of Research Methods in Social and Personality Psychology. P. 496-528

(Kashdan, T., Uswatte, G., Julian, T. 2006) Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy 44 (2006) 177–199

(McCullough, M., Kilpatrick, S., Emmons, R., Larson, D. 2001) Is Gratitude a Moral Affect? Psychological Bulletin. Vol 127 (2), pp. 249-266

(McCullough, M., Emmons, R., Tsang, J. 2002) The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 82 (1), pp. 112-127

(McCullough, M,. Tsang, J., Emmons, R., 2004) Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 86 (2), pp. 295-309

(McWilliams, N & Lependorf S. 1990) Narcissistic pathology of everyday life: The denial of remorse and gratitude. Contemporary Psychology, 26, 430-451.

(Overwalle, F. V., Mervield, I, & De Shuyter I. 1995). Structural modeling of the relationships between attributional dimensions, emotions, and performance of college freshmen. Cognition and Emotion 9, 59-85.

(Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. 2005). Character strengths in forty nations and fifty states. Unpublished manuscript, University of Rhode Island.

(Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., Peterson, C. 2005) Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. Unpublished manuscript.

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