The Power of Gratitude to Cultivate Happiness

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

You’ve undoubtably heard the adage, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Ongoing research is finding that the pen is indeed a mighty weapon that can cultivate happiness. According to Dr. Steven Toepfer at Kent State University, we all possesses an amazing resource — gratitude — that can be used to improve our quality of life [1].

How much of our happiness can we nurture ourselves?

To address this question, Toepfer designed the “Letters of Gratitude” study to assess whether an extended writing campaign would improve happiness, life satisfaction and gratitude. Toepfer evaluated the effects of expressing thankfulness by enlisting 85 students on three Kent State University campuses writingto write three letters of gratitude to people who had positively impacted their lives. The letters had to be nontrivial, insightful and reflective, and contain a high level of appreciation or gratitude expressed in a positive manner. Instead of writing letters, a control group filled out questionnaires.

After writing the letters, students completed a survey to assess their mood, satisfaction with life and feelings of gratitude and happiness. Toepfer found the following [2]:

  • Both within and between groups, happiness improved significantly after the first letter and continued with each subsequent letter.
  • After the first and third letter, life satisfaction showed significant increases compared to non-writers.
  • Gratitude was significantly improved after the third letter.

According to Toepfer [1],

The most powerful thing in our lives is our social network. It doesn’t have to be large, and you don’t always need to be the life of the party, but just having one or two significant connections in your life has shown to have terrific psychological and physical benefits.

A similar phenomenon also presents itself in a clinical population in a non-laboratory setting. A study published earlier this year in the journal The Oncologist evaluated the feasibility of engaging patients in a structured expressive writing task while they waited for an appointment in a cancer clinic [3]. In contrast to studies involving three to five writing sessions conducted in a controlled laboratory setting, the study evaluated the impact of a single writing session in a busy cancer clinic where patients are frequently interrupted.

Researchers conducted their study in the clinic waiting area of the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Seventy-one adult leukemia and lymphoma patients ranging in age from 21 — 88 years completed a pre-writing survey; 63 patients went on to complete twenty minutes of expressive writing and a post-writing survey; 40 patients completed an optional follow-up telephone survey 3 weeks later.

Approximately half (49%) of the participants who completed the writing exercise reported that writing changed their thoughts about their illness. Just over one-third (35%) reported that writing changed the way they felt about their illness. These percentages were similar at the three week follow-up (54% and 38%, respectively).

To analyze the impact of the writing exercise on patients, researchers conducted content analyses of the writing texts, examining each text for themes, words and phrases indicative of the positive change/transformation following a cancer diagnosis. Cancer patients often exhibit a continuum of emotional transformation following a cancer diagnosis, beginning with the shock of diagnosis, followed by acceptance, expressions of gratitude and words related to transformation (more loving and giving, change in character, new interests). Of the 63 expressive writing texts, 60 contained evidence of transformation as identified by specific themes related to feelings about family, spirituality, work and the future.

Greater use of positive emotion words was related to better physical quality of life at follow-up. Similarly, reports of greater change in how the writing made the person think about their illness immediately after writing was also related to better physical quality of life at follow-up.

These studies suggest that expressive writing is a self-directed means to a healthier end. During the holidays this year, take the time to write some letters of gratitude. They may just improve the way you feel about your life.


  1. Research Study: Want to be happier? Be more grateful. Kent State University press release. 2008 Oct 23.
  2. Professor’s Perspective. Kent State Magazine. 2008 Nov 24.
  3. Morgan et al. Implementing an expressive writing study in a cancer clinic. Oncologist. 2008 Feb;13(2):196-204. DOI: 10.1634/theoncologist.2007-0147
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.