Does ‘Counting Your Blessings’ Work?

Doing so has appealed to people for centuries, but the power of a gratitude list can be misused. An Object Lesson.

A crowd of people holding blue signs that say THANK YOU
Attendees hold signs for military veterans at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Scott Olson / Getty)

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.

Some studies suggest that a focus on gratitude improves the ability to assess life quality, the willingness to help others, and the quality of sleep and overall physical health. In a study among Israeli youth exposed to missile attacks, researchers go as far as proposing that gratitude increases resilience against PTSD. And in a quest to find a “gratitude mechanism,” the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley funded a multiyear grant program in 2011, along with a gratitude summit in 2014. Researchers have also attempted to pin down a genetic component—a sort of gratitude gene that could play a role in oxytocin processing.

But gratitude long predates social-scientific study of the concept. Benjamin Franklin, influenced by the Puritans and Quakers of Boston, expressed the essence of this can-do mode of character reformation by publishing daily logs of productivity and virtue. His schedule for writing and working started at 5 a.m., with the question, “What good shall I do this day?”

As Franklin described it in his autobiography, his system was “not wholly without religion,” though he steered clear of “distinguishing tenets of any particular sect.” To improve his character—at age 20, mind you—he devoted a week each to 13 virtues, outlined as “A Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection.”

Almost two centuries later, the sociologist Max Weber would cast Franklin’s can-do practicality as an expression of the Protestant work ethic—part of the former’s theory on the underpinnings of capitalism. Franklin wanted virtue for its own sake, but also for the dividends: happiness and success. Rather than trusting the weighing of souls to a judgmental deity or powerful priest, Franklin expressed the egalitarian and democratic urge to empower people to do this weighing themselves.

Franklin was tapping into the ancient impulse to pray by saying “thank you” combined with the spiritual guidance to reflect on what one takes for granted, which also percolated through Christian communities in 19th century. The phrase “count your blessings,” an apparent predecessor to the gratitude list, first appeared in a sonnet by John Charles Earle, in 1878. In 1897, Johnson Oatman Jr. penned a popular hymn that recommended counting blessings as a way to endure troubled times and to remember the good things in life.

Today’s gratitude list is usually more secular, seeking to change thought and action. Yet for some, the list wields a mystical, mind-over-matter magic. This too is not new: The pragmatic-mysticism movement of the late 1800s preached that one’s thinking could change every element of one’s life. New Age bibles like Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret offer a similar message, and the accompanying The Secret Gratitude Book promises to help readers “live the secret” by using the power of gratitude to realize desires.

As the gratitude-list practice has spread, its forms have evolved. Some people list five or 10 gratitudes. Others choose a gratitude for each letter of the alphabet. Many post their lists on social media, and challenge others to do the same. Others accessorize. The Dailygreatness Journal offers gratitude-list templates and techniques for “self-mastery”—for a fee. A four-quadrant, printable gratitude template can be had for a few dollars on Etsy. Personalized gratitude journals are available for teens, men, grandparents, Christians, Muslims, pregnant women, and cancer patients. There are even smartphone apps that allow users to rate their entries and add photos.

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Does it work? Results are mixed on the science of gratitude. Some research indicates that gratitude lists are about as helpful as other methods of paying attention or monitoring one’s feelings. Even so, people stick with the gratitude practice, maybe because it makes them feel good, or perhaps because it’s easy. And there can be too much of a good thing: Some researchers have argued that a weekly practice might be more effective than a daily tune-in and tune-up, because too much gratitude can lead to a kind of numbing out.

Not all studies show a benefit, however. The practice seems to help those in despair more than those who are already even-keeled. Sharing gratitude with others seems to be beneficial, but only if the listener appears appreciative and engaged. Some studies indicate that when used with children, such lists either have no effect or might be counterproductive. One study indicated that children seemed to respond more positively to the idea of envisioning their “best possible selves” when tested against the gratitude list, though this hasn’t stopped the George Lucas Educational Foundation from touting gratitude lists in the classroom.

In some cases, the stability offered by the list could bring about a harmful stasis. The writer Liz Brown kept a gratitude list for about 100 days during a challenging time in her life, and it made her feel ashamed, depressed, and angry. Only when a new therapist suggested an “ingratitude list” did things start to turn around, allowing her to “grieve the things that I’d lost, missed out on, been cheated out of and all the times life had kicked me straight in the heart.” Suffocating sorrow with gratitude doesn’t make it go away, Brown concluded. And being told to focus on gratitude when angry might lead to shame for having other, less positive, feelings.

As the gratitude trend spreads, the practice can feel compulsory. I developed a suspicion of compulsory gratitude after a workplace meeting several years ago. A supervisor announced a wage freeze and layoffs, followed with advice that sounded suspiciously like a threat: “You should be grateful you have jobs.” Researchers have even studied whether gratitude alleviates stress among workers.

Perhaps the solution to these problems might not be found in lists but in less-stressful working conditions. As Barbara Ehrenreich observed in her book Bright-Sided, a focus on positivity can be more ideological than temperamental: “If your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.”

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Perhaps that’s why gratitude has become corporatized. The practice known as corporate gratitude includes methods for how to say “thank you” to employees and customers with trinkets and cookies and how to use gratitude as a career builder. The Harvard Business Review is chock-full of gratitude advice, calling it “the new willpower” and analyzing why General Motors’ expression of gratitude after the auto-industry bailout topped Chrysler’s. An HBR case study asks, “Do You Thank the Taxpayer for Your Bailout?” Another piece, “How Leaders Can Push Their Employees Without Stressing Them Out,” advocates a thank-you as a way to increase productivity.

But even the Harvard Business Review warns, “Stop Making Gratitude All About You.” The gratitude list began as a tool for private reflection. Public and compulsory performances can edge close to recitation of privilege, offering cover to revel in schadenfreude: I’m so grateful for my safe home, my great family, my good job, as opposed to some other sucker’s terrible life. The often-derided #blessed hashtag appended to one’s social-media posts can cross the line from private reflection into a brag that inoculates itself from blame: A boaster cannot be so easily be condemned when he or she is also so gosh-darn thankful.

Some studies suggest that the “Count Your Blessings” hymn might offer the best model for gratitude: imagining life without certain blessings or reflecting on how things might have gone wrong. Although popular discussion of gratitude lists doesn’t always reference improved social bonds, the psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough wonder whether the effect of gratitude practice leads to more connection to others, and whether the focus on those social bonds leads to increased happiness. Another study claims that gratitude’s power might lie in reorienting focus toward the people in one’s lives. If simple gratitude focuses on the self, complex gratitude emphasizes others, too.

Seeing everything as a blessing might be too much to ask. The gratitude list is not a miracle cure, but a set of training wheels to help people think about how they have needed others, and how their own hands should extended in support. I use them with a respect for what they can do, along with a desire to know myself and the world beyond those lists. And for that insight, I am grateful.