Thank you! – The Positive Psychology of Gratitude

Thank you! – The Positive Psychology of Gratitude

By: Marc Helgesen

Let’s suppose for the next week, you are going to invest five minutes a day into your own happiness. Only five minutes. No money. No great effort. Just a little time. And, as a result, you get six months of more happiness in your life. Five minutes a day for a week! That is about half an hour. And you get six months of good results. By nearly anyone’s standards, this is a very good ROI (Return On Investment).

"What’s the secret (to happiness and gratitude)? There is no secret. It is just a matter of checking the research. "
Marc Helgesen
TT Author

What’s the secret?–there is no secret. It is just a matter of checking the research. This is the result of one of the best-known and most replicated positive psychology interventions (Seligman et al., 2005). Here’s how it works. Every day for a week, you write down three good things that happened in your life. You also write down, “Why.” “Why” can be why it happened (“Dinner was great tonight. My mom’s a good cook.”). Or “Why” can be why it was good (“Dinner was great tonight. Pizza is my favorite.”). That’s all it takes. In the study, people did this for one week. They also did a survey of their own emotional state called the Steen Happiness Index.

The results? People who did the experiment had increased levels of happiness for six months after the one-week intervention. Look at the figure.

Adapted from: Seligman, M. et al., (July, 2005) Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of progress. American Psychologist, 60(5). 410-421.

As you can see, at the start of the experiment, the placebo (control) task, recalling early childhood memories, produces more happiness than the experimental task–thinking of three good things. But the happiness level for thinking of good things (the red line) rises and continues to rise for six months. The study also included a chart of depressive symptoms. Those dropped over the six months. (A simpler, less academic version of the experiment that may be more accessible to your students is here. A non-academic task sheet version, written for EFL/ESL students is here.) As indicated, this is a common positive psychology activity. For teachers who might prefer to use it in a reading class, The Harvard Business Review explained in a short article about a workplace situation here. The same article, simplified for EFL/ESL students, is here.

Gratitude as Mindfulness. What is happening here is mindfulness. Good things happen to all of us every day. The exercise simply encourages people to notice and think about those good things. By thinking about what happened and why, we are feeling our gratitude for these good things. Even though the formal experiment ends after a week, we get in the habit of noticing. We continue to notice, even after the experiment ends. We become more mindful and more grateful.

Count your blessings. When children are young, parents in most cultures encourage them to do something equivalent to “count your blessings.” It turns out, the science backs up the proverb. Robert Emmons (2007), a founder of the “Science of Gratitude,” found that subjects who express gratitude are 25% happier than others, feel more optimistic, and report fewer health complaints. They even exercise more than the control group.

Chowdbury, (2019), in a review of the neuroscience of gratitude, reports that being thankful triggers dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all of which increase happiness. It also is accompanied by a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. All this leads to a plethora of positive results. Gratitude:

• releases toxic emotion and reduces pain

• improves sleep quality

• aids in stress reduction and reduces anxiety and depression

In short, as Chowdbury puts it, “gratitude brings happiness” (2019, para 15).

Gratitude visit/letter. The “three good things” exercise invites us to notice and experience mindfulness. Another well-known intervention, the gratitude visit/letter encourages people to take gratitude to the next level and express their thanks to the person who did something important for them. They write a letter to someone who they haven’t properly thanked for the special action. Then, if possible, they visit the person and read the letter. If that isn’t practical, they send the letter.

In this short video (33 seconds), Martin Seligman explains that the activity increases happiness and decreases depression. In my own classroom, I ask the students to write their letter twice, once in the language of the person who did the kind action, and once in English (it is an English class, after all). The letter explains what the person did and thanks them. Students usually write the letter as homework. The next class, they hand in the English version and I give them an envelope and, if necessary, stamps. Many students write to a parent. I’ve heard beautiful stories like, “I read it to my mom, and we cried together.” You know those are tears of joy. Of course, you never know what the results will be. One student read the letter to her dad who, with eyes wide open, asked, “What did you do to the car?”


In some cultures, it is unusual to express thanks so directly. The version of the handout I use explains that, “my teacher asked me to write this.” I have versions of the handout available with that part in Japanese, Korean, Bahasa, and Vietnamese. (If readers teach learners of other languages and would like to add another language version of the letter to the website, contact me at [email protected]

Gratitude list. Each year, on or around my birthday, I make a gratitude list. I draw an oval for each year of my age on a piece of paper. In each oval, I write one thing I am grateful for. I do this with many of my classes sometime near Thanksgiving Day. (That Japanese holiday isn’t very meaningful for most of my students, but it is a good chance to bring up the topic of being grateful.). Most of my students are 18-22. My list is much longer than theirs. I noticed that when we do this in class, their first few items come almost instantly. Then they have to start thinking. Perfect. They are thinking about who and what they are really grateful for. In class, I invite them to share their list with a partner. Partners ask about the items that interest them. I got this idea from Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind.

Thank you to the world. If you have been reading this article from the beginning, your brain can probably use a break by now. Take about one minute. Stand up. How many foreign languages can you say “Thank you” in? Make a list or say them out loud.

Why would you want to thank those cultures and the speakers of those languages?

            I want to say “_________” to _________ because…

                                             “Thank you”               country/culture

I want to say, “gratze” to Italy because they gave us great art (and pizza).

I want to say, “shukran” to the Arab world because they gave us math. I don’t really like math, but it is important.

That’s what we do in class. It is about language, so it fits in easily. And it encourages the students to think about what they do know, not what they don’t. Doing this task sheet feels more like a game than a foreign language quiz.

In conclusion, I hope this article and this issue give you reasons and ways to connect your classroom and students to gratitude. As James Matthew Barrie put it, “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”

Marc Helgesen is professor emeritus at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. He’s an author of over 200 professional articles, books and textbooks including English Language Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX) and the English Firsthand series (Pearson). He’s been an invited speaker to conferences on five continents. Websites:,

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