As the amber leaves of November pave the way for the approaching winter, there is a evident shift in the air—that of reflection and thanksgiving. This month, often seen as the heart of the harvest season, naturally steers our collective consciousness towards gratitude. It’s not just about the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated in some parts of the world, but rather a universal cue for introspection on the abundance within and around us. In this season of giving thanks (which happens to be my favorite!), we find the perfect opportunity to explore the profound connection between gratitude and belonging—two powerful strands woven into the fabric of our social existence.
Often associated with thankfulness and appreciation, gratitude is proving to be a potent bridge to belonging, creating and strengthening social bonds that are essential to our well-being.
More than just saying “Thank you”
Gratitude is multifaceted; it is an emotional response to receiving a benefit, an attitude towards life, and a moral virtue that guides behavior (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). When we express gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness in our lives, often due to the actions of others which provides us with support and kindness. Scientific studies have revealed that gratitude goes beyond mere pleasantries; it can lead to increased levels of happiness, decreased depression, and can even impact physical health (Emmons & Stern, 2013).
In the following TED Talk, David Steindl-Rast explains the connection between gratitude and happiness. One of his strongest quotes in this talk is, “it is not happiness that makes us grateful” but “gratefulness that makes us happy”.
Cementing social bonds
The act of expressing gratitude has a reciprocal nature, as it acknowledges a beneficial action from one individual to another, thus reinforcing social ties (Algoe, 2012). Gratitude encourages a cycle of generosity and consideration, fostering a sense of community and connection. For instance, when one person expresses gratitude towards another, the receiver is more likely to feel valued and, in turn, behave benevolently, perpetuating a positive feedback loop within social interactions (Grant & Gino, 2010).
Belonging: a primal need
Belonging, on the other hand, is a fundamental human need, as crucial to our psychological health as food and shelter are to our physical survival (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). A sense of belonging comes from feeling connected, valued, and integrated into a group or community. This need drives much of human behavior and shapes our societal structures.
Gratitude as a pathway to belonging
When gratitude is expressed within a group setting, it can enhance the feeling of belonging among its members. Allen and colleagues (2018) demonstrated that gratitude interventions in work settings could lead to a stronger sense of social worth and contribute to a more cohesive organizational culture. This sense of belonging, in turn, is linked to greater satisfaction with one’s group, which reinforces group solidarity (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
The virtuous circle
Gratitude can create a virtuous circle, where expressions of thanks lead to greater social integration, which then amplifies the opportunities for gratitude, thus fostering a sense of belonging. This virtuous circle can be a powerful antidote to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are all too common in modern society.
Micro-actions for cultivating gratitude and belonging
So knowing what we know now. How can we cultivate an improved sense of gratitude and belonging. Try these simple, everyday actions:
- Gratitude journaling: Take a few moments each day to write down things you are thankful for. This can shift focus from what is lacking to what is abundant in your life (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
- Gratitude visits: Write a letter to someone who has made a positive impact on your life and deliver it in person. This not only boosts your sense of gratitude but can also strengthen your bond with that person (Seligman et al., 2005).
- Active listening: When someone shares good news, actively engage and show enthusiasm. This response, known as ‘active-constructive responding,’ builds trust and promotes closer relationships (Gable et al., 2004).
- Volunteering: Engage in community service. Helping others can increase feelings of gratitude and enhance your sense of connection to the community (Poulin et al., 2013).
- Sharing gratitude: Make it a habit to tell friends, family, and colleagues what you appreciate about them. This can increase feelings of belonging in both directions (Algoe, 2012).
In other words
Gratitude and belonging are deeply intertwined, each fueling the other. By fostering gratitude in our daily lives, we can enhance our connections with others, creating a sense of belonging that is essential for our psychological and emotional health. As research continues to unravel the complexities of these connections, it is clear that simple acts of thankfulness can have profound implications for our social fabric.
- Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455-469.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
- Emmons, R. A., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 846-855.
- Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245.
- Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946-955.
- Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 103(9), 1649-1655.
- Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.