Arianna Huffington, who once called gratitude a “gateway to grace,” was so invested in the idea that she created an entire gratitude section for the Huffington Post in 2015. Among the exercises she advocated for was the gratitude list—a record of appreciations used as a motivational tool.
The list has become enormously popular. The motivational speaker Tony Robbins claims to start each day with one, in order to cultivate an “abundance mindset.” Steve-O, of the MTV show Jackass, has said he makes daily gratitude lists “for good luck.” Proponents recommend the lists to cope with everything from anxiety over racial conflict to the daily grind of office work. Oprah has even assigned the list, claiming that it can “open up the spiritual dimension of your life.”
Studies on gratitude cite a range of benefits, including greater life satisfaction, less envy, better sleep, and stronger resilience in the face of stress and depression. As the list becomes a folk cure for the globalized age, it might benefit from a warning label: Gratitude lists are not magic. Sometimes they don’t work, and their power can both backfire and be misused.
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To study the effect of the gratitude list, researchers have had to define gratitude and decide how to measure it. Some psychologists contend that gratitude has two emotional components: a “thank you” combined with a recognition that a benefit came from an outside source. This idea sits at the heart of the list’s place in 12-step programs. The list provides a daily structure to modify habits of thought over time, training participants to notice their positive accomplishments rather than dwelling on worries or resentments that might trigger self-destructive behavior.