Faculty Spotlight

Learning Gratitude with Elizabeth Donovan, Assistant Professor of Psychology

Elizabeth Donovan, assistant professor of psychology
Assistant Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Donovan

Assistant Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Donovan teaches courses in health, developmental, and introductory psychology.

Much of her research focuses on psychosocial interventions and how they can lead people to be both happier and healthier.

Learn how she has integrated gratitude practice into these intervention programs to help people manage chronic health conditions and stress.

What can we learn from the current research on gratitude?

Gratitude is appreciation for things in life — not just “things” but moments, people, relationships, nature. In my research, I explore how our thoughts and emotions impact our overall health. We know [from the research] that gratitude is associated with happiness. Gratitude also seems to be important for building strong relationships and may be associated with less depression and symptoms of anxiety. In addition, people who are more grateful also report fewer health complaints — including headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and sleep disturbances — than less grateful counterparts.

Through experimental research, we can try to figure out whether gratitude causes people to be happier, less anxious, and in better health, or whether healthier people tend to be more grateful. Research shows that simple interventions can lead to benefits, which implies a causal relationship between gratitude and wellbeing.

What daily practices do you recommend?

I love simple, effective interventions. Gratitude isn’t a fixed personality trait — it is something that can be learned. Keeping a gratitude journal and taking time to write in it every night is a simple way to increase gratitude.

One classic research study compared three groups of people: one group wrote a daily list of gratitudes, another wrote about daily hassles, and a third group wrote on a neutral topic. They found that just by writing about things they were grateful for, the first group reported increased well-being as compared to the other groups.

In my "Health Psychology" class, I often assign an activity where students are asked to keep a gratitude diary for two weeks. I’ve found that students initially looked for big things to write down, then gradually focused on little things: time with a friend, pets, a sip of coffee, a great dessert, taking a walk in nature. Small everyday activities become worth noting. Knowing they had to write something down, they started looking for these things throughout the day. Keeping a journal tunes you into those moments.

There are other methods for capturing gratitude. Another class activity I often assign is to take a photo every day of something that brings you joy, which works better than writing for some students. You can also reach out to friends and family and create a routine where you talk about what you are grateful for. Even a meditative moment every day — whether it’s a few minutes of meditation, prayer, or a reflective moment while drinking your morning coffee — is a way to connect to the present and integrate gratitude into your life.

Research shows that simple interventions can lead to benefits, which implies a causal relationship between gratitude and wellbeing.

How is gratitude a part of your work?

In my own work, I’ve studied interventions to help people manage chronic health conditions and stress, and I’ve integrated gratitude practice into those programs. A few years ago, my research colleagues and I offered a self-compassion intervention on the Simmons campus. We were interested in whether students would stay with the eight-week program and how they felt about the approach as a way to help them manage stress.

I was involved in another study of teenagers and young adults with sarcoma who were given an app that offered mindfulness exercises on their phones, and there was a gratitude component there as well. Gratitude practice can be an interesting complement to other mind/body interventions.

Anything that makes you feel particularly grateful?

Lots of things! I love being back at Simmons and having chance encounters with people. I was very grateful we were able to meet through Zoom, but now I’m enjoying bumping into people in the hallway, having spontaneous conversations with colleagues in person, and feeling a part of the community.

During the pandemic, we all became acutely aware of what we were missing. It made me aware of the small things in life that made me happy and were taken away. I have a friend who loves music and would occasionally see live shows. During the pandemic, he said, “I’m never passing up a show that I want to see again. ” Missing those opportunities make us aware of the happiness that music, friends, nature — those everyday activities — add to our lives.

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