gratitude photo


We know that gratitude improves our mood, makes us happier, and enhances our overall outlook on life. But gratitude is probably not the first thing we reach for when life throws a wrench in our plans, when we face a setback, or when we have loss.


Yet maybe we should.


Gratitude is not just a powerful antidote to losses, it’s wired into our very nature.


The work of Frans de Waal, and Felix Warneken, who have both studied morality in primate populations, have repeatedly demonstrated that primates (they have primarily used chimps) when given a choice between helping only themselves, or helping themselves plus a partner, prefer the latter (De Waal, 2010; Warneken, 2010)

I note this effect in my book, LEVERAGE: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards,

Gratitude may also have evolved to motivate not just returning acts of kindness to those who have been kind to us but also increasing the likelihood that we will “pay it forward.” Known as “upstream reciprocity,” passing gratitude’s benefits on to third parties, instead of returning favors to one’s benefactors, appears to be highly adaptive. In a sort of natural selection, when upstream reciprocity is present in a population that already exhibits reciprocal altruism—its members help one another—those who don’t pay it forward tend to be weeded out. This effect was noted by de Waal when chimps were given a choice between a token that provided food for only themselves (selfish behavior) or a token that provided food for themselves and their partner (prosocial behavior). Interesting, chimps preferred the prosocial behavior—as much as three times as often as the selfish behavior—unless their partner was using pressure and intimidation tactics (in the case of chimpanzees, this equates to spitting water on the partner). When pressure and intimidation tactics were present, chimps’ tendency to make prosocial choices dropped to almost baseline levels—no better than random. This selection pressure for gratitude is also what Nowak and Roch suggest—that gratitude is an intrinsic part of our nature.


But it is particularly when facing losses that gratitude might just benefit us the most.

Gratitude helps us forgive. Forgiveness is associated with the absence of a host of psychopathological traits. Forgiveness lowers anxiety, improves mood, reduces ruminative thinking, and virtually eliminates paranoia. Those who can forgive consistently report improved relationships, mood, and even cognitive functioning (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010)


Gratitude is connected to low levels of narcissism. Narcissisim, not surprinsingly is a major deterrent to relationship functioning, and consequently a major roadblock to getting over losses. Those who focus on their own needs, often ignore the needs of the relationship, and often struggle with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and inadequacy. Gratitude, on the other hand, strengthens relationships and promotes relationship formation and maintenance. Relationship connection and satisfaction also appear to be highly linked to gratitude, and experimental evidence suggests that gratitude may promote conflict resolution and increase reciprocally helpful behavior (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010)


Gratitude helps prevent PTSD. Looking at the role of gratitude in staving off posttraumatic stress disorder, researchers looked at a sample of Vietnam War veterans, including forty-two patients diagnosed with PTSD and a control group of thirty-five comparison veterans, to find that gratitude is “substantially lower in people with PTSD.” Further, gratitude was shown to relate to higher daily self-esteem and positive affect above the effects of symptomatology (Wood et al, 2011).



Gratitude helps us in a variety of ways – and many of which we are still discovering – and while it might not be the first thing we think of when faced with losses, it might be the most hopeful. In my next blog, we will explore simple ways to build gratitude into our daily lives.




Frans de Waal, “Moral Behavior in Animals” (lecture, TEDxPeachtree, 2010).

  1. Warneken, “The Development of Altruistic Behavior: Helping in Children and Chimpanzees,” Social Research 80, no. 2 (2010).
  2. Wood, J. Froh, and A. Geraghty, “Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration,” Clinical Psychology Review (2010).
  3. Wood et al., “Using Personal and Psychological Strengths Leads to Increases in Well-Being over Time: A Longitudinal Study and the Development of the Strengths Use Questionnaire,” Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011), 15–19.



Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of LEVERAGE: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, visit

Photo by symphony of love