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How grateful are Americans?

Jeremy Adam Smith

Americans are very grateful and they think gratitude is important—they’re just not very good at expressing it.

That’s one of the conclusions from a national survey on gratitude commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, which also funds the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center’s gratitude project. We’ve stressed the importance of gratitude for years, as more and more research reveals its benefits. But we don’t really know: How grateful actually are Americans today?

That’s why Templeton’s new survey is so significant. The polling firm Penn, Shoen, and Berland surveyed over 2,000 people in the United States, capturing perspectives from different ages, ethnic groups, income levels, religiosities, and more. Their data provide an unprecedented snapshot of gratefulness in America.

Gratitude was enormously important to respondents–and these numbers suggest that people see themselves as having lots to be grateful for, that gratitude is coming from a place of generosity and humanism, and that feelings of gratitude arise effortlessly and often. Even so, people think about, feel, and espouse gratitude more readily than expressing it to others. This might be why respondents also felt that gratitude in America is declining.

How important is gratitude?

  • More than 90 precent of those polled agreed that grateful people are more fulfilled, lead richer lives, and are more likely to have friends.
  • More than 95 percent said that it is anywhere from “somewhat” to “very” important for mothers and fathers to teach gratitude.
  • 93 percent of those polled agreed that grateful bosses were more likely to be successful, and only 18 percent thought that grateful bosses would be seen as “weak.”
  • Asked about their own habits and feelings about gratitude, only one percent selected “I think that gratitude is unnecessary.”

When do we feel grateful?

The poll tapped into two different aspects of feeling gratitude, asking what kinds of experiences elicit gratitude as well as how strongly and often people feel grateful.

  • Given a list of categories from friends to education to modern medicine, people were most grateful for their immediate families, followed closely by freedom.
  • Lowest on the list overall was “your current job”—although for people earning annual salaries over $150,000, the gratitude for your job category was as highly evocative of gratitude as “your right to vote.”
  • When asked about personal experiences, people indicated that both positive and negative events can lead to gratitude, with the negative ones helping them appreciate what they already have.
  • When asked why they expressed gratitude, people were more than twice as likely to select options related to the greater good like “it makes the world a better place” than options related to tit-for-tat reciprocity like “other people will be nicer to me.”
  • In response to questions about how often thoughts about gratitude occur and whether they just “happen naturally,” versus requiring “something special or out of the ordinary to occur,” 77 percent said they think about gratitude at least a couple times a week, and 80 percent said that this “just happens naturally.”
  • Peoples’ responses to the Gratitude Scale by McCullough, Tsang, and Emmons suggest that the prevailing majority of people feel lots to be grateful for, and that less than 30 percent endure long periods of time devoid of gratitude.
  • Between spouses, the experiences that people rated feeling most grateful for were “expressions of love and affection,” and “being listened to”; these were more gratifying than flowers or vacations.

Thank you in different languages

How do we say “thanks”?

The results so far show that gratitude is very important to Americans, and that they actively feel grateful for what they have. But how often, and in what circumstances, do people actually say thanks? The results reveal more evidence for a phenomenon sometimes called the gratitude gap—given how often they feel it, and how important they think it is, Americans do not express gratitude very often.

  • Almost half of people express gratitude on a daily basis to immediate family (spouses, children, parents—though elsewhere in the survey 63 percent indicated daily gratitude expression to spouses), and less than 15 percent express daily gratitude to friends or colleagues.
  • Bosses, regrettably, were placed the category of “never” being thanked by 35 percent of those polled.
  • Asked about everyday encounters, less than 50 percent said they would be “very likely” to thank salespeople that helped them, as well the postman, the cleaning staff etc. Only wait staff at nice restaurants surpassed this threshold, with 58 percent “very likely” to receive thanks. TSA screeners, at the other extreme, were only “very likely” to be thanked by 22 percent of people.
  • Asked about their children, people indicate expressing gratitude widely and often—a heartwarming and promising exception to the gratitude gap.

Who is grateful?

  • Women were more grateful than men on almost every measure.
  • People were least likely to express gratitude in workplaces…despite wishing to be thanked more often themselves at work.
  • Being religious was associated with greater feelings of gratitude.
  • 18-to-24 year olds express gratitude less often than any other age group, and are more likely to express gratitude for self-serving reasons.
  • Married people are more grateful—51 percent expressing gratitude on a regular basis compared to 35 percent of singles.

How does age affect gratitude?
To explore whether gratitude trends are changing, people were asked to rate their own gratitude over time.

  • On two different questions, 88 percent of those polled said that they were just, if not more, grateful today than they were 3,4, or 10 years ago.
  • 92 percent of people indicated that they have been feeling the same or more gratitude over the last few years.
  • When asked about “most people today” (e.g., not themselves), people said gratitude levels were declining; only 19 percent selected the option that most people today are “more likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago.”
  • 60 percent thought that people are less likely to express gratitude today than 100 year ago.

The rise and fall of gratitude

The upshot? This poll suggests that people think their own gratitude is increasing, while everyone else’s is going down.

The good news? This is impossible, and likely due to a well-documented bias: we’re better at noticing and tallying what we personally do than what other people do. It may also be the case that Americans have simply gotten worse at expressing gratitude to each other. According to the data, most of the people surveyed are feeling more grateful today, and only lack in their tendency to say “thanks”—despite knowing that expressing gratitude can bring more happiness, meaning, professional success, and interpersonal connection into their lives.

These data suggest that the Greater Good Science Center is on the right track with programs designed to promote gratitude and help people to become more skilled in expressing gratitude, such as how-to articles or Thnx4.org, our interactive gratitude journal. The poll also provides a useful baseline against which future polls can be compared to assess the impact of generational shifts, gratitude interventions, cultural movements, and other contextual influences on gratitude. The numbers so far tell a promising story—and point to areas where we might work to improve.

This article was co-authored by Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the science director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

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