Psychologists break down gratitude into three phases: appreciation, goodwill and expression [source: Watkins]. Say someone gives you a ticket to see your favorite band. Initially, you'd probably react with appreciation for the unsolicited gift; the appreciation would breed a sense of goodwill toward the giver. Finally, you'd want to express your thanks in some way.
These characteristics of gratitude align closely with those of subjective well-being, aka happiness. You project a positive outlook onto a situation and exhibit sociability, likely strengthening the recipient-giver relationship. Due to this overlap, some psychologists have posited that gratitude is one of the keenest predictors of high subjective well-being. To test this link, a six-item Gratitude Questionnaire rates participants' natural tendencies toward feeling and showing gratitude. People who scored high on the survey also ranked at the top of the pack on the Satisfaction With Life Survey, one of the most commonly used polls for evaluating happiness [source: Watkins].
It's understandable that gratitude and happiness are intersecting affective states, given their similar set of positive features. Yet, what's more intriguing is the impact of gratitude on one's subjective well-being; people on the lower end of the happiness scale can benefit from practicing gratitude. In a 10-week study comparing participants who kept a daily log of things they felt grateful for and those who didn't, members of the gratitude group demonstrated a 25 percent lift in happiness [source: Emmons]. Follow-up studies also found that people who regularly recorded sources of gratitude exercised more per week and achieved more goals [source: Emmons].
Gratitude may have positive long-term effects, but it doesn't come easy for everyone. A study at George Mason University concluded that men may have more difficulty grappling with gratitude. Some men feel burdened when they receive gifts, rather than accepting them as unconditional favors [source: George Mason University]. Furthermore, gratitude demands a certain degree of emotional openness and vulnerability that some people find uncomfortable. Therefore, it may take time to grow accustomed to intentionally recognizing facets of life that we shouldn't take for granted [source: Aaronson].
Research continually illustrates that practicing gratitude pays off in spades. Human emotions are highly adaptable, which can preserve our spirits during rough times and also numb us to happiness. Gratitude, however, refreshes our appreciation for good fortunes that may otherwise fall by the wayside in the daily grind. That, in effect, reinvigorates happiness.
Thanksgiving may only come once a year, but you'll thank your lucky stars if you learn to count your blessings every day.