The Science of Gratitude

Is there a science of gratitude? A little below 7% of Americans struggle with depression, but in couples therapy, about 40% of the couples have issues with depression with at least one partner. Depression and marital conflict are the two most common presenting problems in mental health today.

Recent research indicates that an attitude of gratitude counterbalances depression by channeling the focus of attention from the negative to the positive. From a neuro-science perspective, we now know that gratitude is part of a larger schema that notices and appreciates the positive. Gratitude has a distinctly different neurological signature than optimism, hope or trust.


Gratitude is highly correlated with well-being (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Gottman has consistently recruited this science of gratitude to craft powerful interventions that we use during couples therapy intensives. These interventions are designed to increase gratitude in committed couples.

Human attention is like a muscle. It can be trained. It can develop an Observing Self. When we focus on noticing a positive change and catch our partner doing something right, a moment of gratitude produces a chemical cascade which acts as a neurological medicine.


The Science of Gratitude

  • An attitude of Gratitude that becomes a habit can boost your overall happiness by 25%.
  • In a recent study of severely depressed subjects, participants were asked to simply notice and write down three good things that happened each day for a total of 15 days. At the end of just 15 days of this slight effort, 94% of the subjects were downgraded from severely depressed to moderately depressed.
  • If you start noticing your partner doing something right and praise or encourage them, your happiness will also increase by 25%. Not to mention the fact that appreciation begets appreciation (DeShazer, 1985).


How do we process our experience? Gratitude is not merely an attitudinal weighing. It’s a broad orientation toward life itself.

How do we make sense of the good things in our lives? How do we decide to encounter the very notion of gratitude?

If we are stuck in Yes…But:

  • We exclude or dismisses what preceded.
  • We cancel, negate, or discount what preceded.
  • It implies that the first issue is subordinated to the second.


But if we stop ourselves and try Yes…And:

  • We include and expands what preceded.
  • We acknowledge what preceded.
  • It Can be neutral or positive.
  • Neither issue is subsumed into the other.

The Science of Gratitude and the Pursuit of Change

One of the research challenges on the notion of gratitude is that gratitude has several different meanings, depending on the presenting object relations. However, I think that this study presented a sound, clinical working definition. The researchers described “gratitude” as an appreciation of what is personally meaningful and valuable, and indicative of a reflective mental state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.

Besides Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, (2010), there have been other empirical studies which correlate feelings of gratitude with a sense of overall well being. In terms of the clinical measure of gratitude, numerous assessment measures have been designed.


Gratitude heals the heart, brain, and mind. There are a vast number of exercises and techniques in literally all couples therapy models designed to enhance gratitude, and they are relatively simple and easy to integrate at home. The therapeutic efficacy of many of these techniques remains, and probably will remain, largely unknown.

However, outcome research reveals that the Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Models interventions have been proven to be 70-92% clinically effective.

Gratitude. It’s an appreciation of what is personally meaningful and valuable. Often the exhausted nervous system of couples can be healed with a shift in what is noticed, a reframing of what it means, and an awareness of gratitude.



About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

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