When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.

G.K. Chesterton

The Research

Old age is no longer assumed to be an inevitably dreary, depressing, and difficult part of the life course. Many aspects of late life are valued and enjoyable, such as grandparenthood and retirement, and there are very large individual differences in the rates of cognitive and physical decline. However, there is no denying that physical and cognitive declines do occur in older adults; finding ways to transition during these changes, while still maintaining a positive outlook, is an important ingredient to successful aging. Maintaining the ability to feel grateful in the face of these declines is an important mechanism by which some older adults prevent losses to their emotional and psychological wellbeing. Research on how gratitude can help buffer difficulties that can come with aging has been hampered by a lack of good measures of gratitude that make sense for older individuals.

The goal of the Gratitude in an Aging Society project is to develop new measures of gratitude that are relevant for aging research. The plan unfolds in several steps. The first step was to conduct focus groups with older individuals. Details and results of these focus groups are included on this website. The results were used help develop questions for the new measure of gratitude. The next step will be to test the new measure by asking a sample of older individuals to complete it and to tabulate these results.

Focus Groups

Our first step was to conduct focus groups with older individuals in three different age ranges: 60-69; 70-79; and 80-89. There were 11 participants in each focus group. The aim was to get detailed descriptions of situations in which these older adults felt gratitude, the language they use to describe feelings of gratitude, and their perspective of how they currently experience gratitude compared to when they were younger.

Several themes emerged from these focus groups:

    • Across all three age groups, participants expressed that gratitude increased with age
    • Health, family, religion, and safety were all items commonly mentioned in the list of things that brought up feelings of gratitude
    • With increasing age, participants mentioned gratitude for receiving help, but also often resentment that others assume they need help
    • In addition to experiencing gratitude as a response to acts performed by benefactors, older adults frequently mentioned gratitude for things such as every additional sunrise they get to experience

Code Frame

Based on themes that emerged from our first look at the focus group data, our team developed a coding frame to quantify the comments during the focus groups. We trained coders to reliably code focus group participant comments based on this coding frame. We then adapted the coding frame to code participant comments in another dataset, the Foley Longitudinal Study of Adulthood.

The main content areas in the coding frame include:

    • Presence of Gratitude
    • Grateful to something or someone
    • Expressions of politeness
    • Situations of gratitude (something earned, something expected, effort extended by benefactor)
    • Value of the benefactor action (wanted vs. unwanted, needed vs. not needed)
    • Feeling negative emotions in addition to gratitude
    • Spiritual or religious link to gratitude

Presentations

Several members of the research team have presented preliminary results of this research at academic conferences. These presentations are included here.

Completed Conference Presentations

Emerging Insights from the Science of Gratitude, Chapel Hill, NC January 2018

Invited Speaker: Critical Considerations about Gratitude in Older Adults, presented by Lindsay H. Ryan

Association for Psychological Science, Annual Convention May, 2016

Symposium Presentation: Gratitude: Older Adult Scale, to be presented by Lindsay H. Ryan

International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Biennial Meeting July, 2016

Symposium Presentation: Gratitude with Age: The Gratitude – Older Adult Scale, to be presented by Lindsay H. Ryan, Nicky J. Newton, Emily Gach, and Onawa LaBelle

The Gerontological Association of America, Annual Scientific Meeting November, 2016

Symposium: Do Virtues Matter? Considerations for Health and Well-being, to be chaired by Lindsay H. Ryan and Toni C. Antonucci

Symposium Presentation: State and Trait Gratitude in Midlife, to be presented by Lindsay H. Ryan, Nicky J. Newton, Emily Gach, and Onawa LaBelle

Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, Annual Conference October, 2015

Poster: Gratitude in Midlife: Links between Trait and State, presented by Lindsay H. Ryan, Nicky J. Newton, and Emily Gach

Association for Psychological Science, Annual Convention May, 2015

Symposium: Gratitude in Adulthood: Situations, Contexts, and Measures, chaired by Nicky J. Newton

Symposium Presentation: Gratitude in Late Life: Critical Considerations, presented by Nicole Chen and Lindsay H. Ryan

Symposium Presentation: Gratitude in Midlife: Comparisons between trait and State, presented by Nicky J. Newton, Emily Gach, and Courtney Yates

Symposium Presentation: Gratitude, Insecure Attachment, and Positive Outcomes among 12-Step Recovery Participants, presented by Onawa LaBelle and Robin Edelstein

Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Annual Convention January, 2015

Poster: Why Should I be Grateful? Critical Considerations of Gratitude for Older Adults, presented by Lindsay H. Ryan, Nicky J. Newton, Onawa LaBelle, Emily Gach, Nicole Chen, and Courtney Yates

Instrument Development

The Gratitude: Older Adult Scale, the new measure of gratitude, is currently in development.

Bibliography

These publications, updated periodically, provide background information about theory and research on gratitude.

Bono, G., Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2004). Gratitude in practice and the practice of gratitude. In P. A. Linley, S. Joseph,&M. Seligman (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 186–209). New York: Oxford.

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, 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Froh, J. J., Fan, J., Emmons, R. A., Bono, G., Huebner, E. S., & Watkins, P. (2011). Measuring Gratitude in Youth: Assessing the Psychometric Properties of Adult Gratitude Scales in Children and Adolescents. Psychological Assessment, 23, 311-324. doi:10.1037/a0021590

Hill, R. D. (2005). Positive aging: A guide for mental health care professionals and consumers. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hill, R. D. (2011). A Positive Aging Framework for Guiding Geropsychology Interventions. Behavior Therapy, 42, 66-77. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2010.04.006

Hill, P. D., Allemand, M., & Roberts, B. W. (2013). Examining the pathways between gratitude and self-rated physical health across adulthood. Personality and Individual Differences, 54, 92-96.

Kubacka, K. E., Finkenauer, C., Rusbult, C. E., & Keijsers, L. (2011). Maintaining Close Relationships: Gratitude as a Motivator and a Detector of Maintenance Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1362-1375. doi:10.1177/0146167211412196

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J.-A. (2002). The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.82.1.112

Watkins, P. C. (2004). Gratitude and subjective well-being. In R. A. Emmons and M. E. McCullough (Eds.) The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford University Press, NY.

Watkins, P. C., Van Gelder, M., & Frias, A. (2009). Furthering the Science of Gratitude. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 437-445).

Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and Relationships with Subjective Well-Being. Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 431-452. doi:10.2224/sbp.2003.31.5.431

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890-905. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005