Why it Matters to Express Gratitude

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” – William Arthur Ward

What is the meaning of gratitude to you?  How do you know when you are experiencing a sense of gratitude and what are the benefits of expressing it openly?  Almost all of us have felt a deep sense of gratitude at different moments in our lives.  Some people tend to feel and express gratitude more readily than others, although the internal experience of gratitude often shares quite similar qualities: feelings of awe, appreciation, and warmth.

Sansone and Sansone (2010) define gratitude as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.” Within this definition, the experience of gratitude encompasses not only interpersonal thankfulness, but also a general appreciation for what it means to be alive in this present moment.

Each passing moment provides an opportunity to experience and express gratitude, although most of us are so wrapped up in our own personal dramas that we miss out on the beauty of the present moment.  Mindfulness allows us to tap into the present moment with greater clarity and precision.  It enables us to notice all aspects of our internal and external experience, opening our eyes to qualities of life that we could easily miss noticing.

Research supports the link between expressing gratitude and experiencing higher levels of subjective well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).  Even though we may have a sense that expressing gratitude might result in a more positive general sense of well-being, it is often quite difficult for many people to do.  There is often a natural tendency of many people to direct their attention toward the negative rather than the positive.  This is unfortunate, since this type of mental filter blocks out the frequent abundance of things for which to be grateful.

If you find yourself noticing far more negatives than positives, ask yourself what emotional and psychological consequences you experience as a result of viewing the world in this way (e.g., depression or anxiety).  Even if you have a great deal of hurdles to overcome in life, there is still much cause for gratitude.  When attention is focused on the past and the future, by definition you are missing out on this present moment of your life.  It is essentially passing you by while you stay imprisoned in your mind and the stories it tells you.

We all do this to some extent from time to time.  The point is to recognize how this mental escape into the internal drama of “I, me, and mine” is a choice.  Just as you can choose to dwell on the past or worry about the future, you can also choose to bring your mindful awareness to this moment… right now.  Take a moment to take stock of your life at this very moment in time.  Since you are reading the words on this page it is quite likely that you are living and breathing.  Imagine the alternative!  The fact that you have the opportunity to be alive in this moment is cause for gratitude.

If you find yourself feeling as if life has dealt you a “raw deal” or if this moment in time doesn’t hold much for which to be grateful at all, ask yourself about the meaning that you have assigned to your personal obstacles in life.  The way that we view our personal hurdles has a great deal to do with whether or not we are able to feel and express gratitude.  If you make the choice to start looking at your obstacles as opportunities for growth and improvement, your mindset gradually begins to change.  You can do this in an authentic way without an overly rosy or “Pollyanna-ish” outlook.

When obstacles in life present themselves, ask yourself how you wish to make meaning of the challenge.  Rather than kick and scream about how difficult the situation might be, choose to reflect upon how the challenge can make you stronger.  What lessons are to be learned through overcoming the challenge?  Finding meaning in pain and struggle can be quite difficult at times, but it is always possible.

Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist, found meaning and grew stronger as a result of surviving his time in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  In fact, he developed an entire system of psychotherapy called logotherapy as a result of his experience.  Even in the darkest and bleakest of times, when you make the choice to assign purposeful (rather than victim-based) meaning to your experience, there is always hope.  It is this deep sense of making meaning out of tragedy that can enable people to become incredibly strong as a result.  When you go through an incredibly painful experience and come out to the other side intact, you know that you are capable of facing just about anything.

As Thanksgiving approaches, choose to spend some quiet reflective time assessing and expressing gratitude in your own life.  If you have been struggling lately, ask yourself what hidden lessons and opportunities for growth lie within those challenges.  Take a leap of faith and express thanks to the universe for presenting you with the challenges you now face.  Without those challenges, you might never know the true strength of your character… and that is a precious gift.

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Sansone, R.A., & Sansone, L.A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: The benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry, 7, 18-22.

Featured image: 30 Days of Gratitude at a Glance by aussiegall / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on November 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

    What a wonderful message! I am grateful for this moment and for this post reminding me to be grateful for this moment!

    • Laura on November 20, 2011 at 11:29 am

      James – I am so glad that you enjoyed this post on the importance of expressing gratitude! Thank you for your comment!

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