March 1, 2020 • Third Third Journal
There’s little question that gratitude makes a major, positive difference in our lives. I expect that most of us know this from our own experience, in addition to the research evidence. It certainly seems reasonable to conclude that gratitude would make such a difference in the lives of people who have entered the third third (folks 55 and over, more or less). But, I wonder, has anyone studied this explicitly. Is there scientific evidence that shows that folks in the third third benefit from being thankful? Yes, there is. And what we find is quite striking.
Gratitude and Lifelong Flourishing
by Mark D. Roberts, Ph.D.
Max De Pree Center for Leadership
Fuller Theological Seminary
Psychological studies of gratitude demonstrate many of its benefits. Yes, when you say a heartfelt “Thank you” to someone it makes a positive difference to that person, of course. But gratitude also makes a huge difference in the life of the one who is grateful.
Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the first to study the benefits of gratitude. In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes an experiment called “The Gratitude Visit.” Participants wrote a letter of gratitude to someone who had made a significant difference in their lives. Then they met with that person and read the letter. This experience, it turns out, had a powerful, positive effect on the letter writer, not just immediately, but also for many days thereafter. Their overall well-being was significantly elevated.
One of the world’s leading researchers on gratitude is Dr. Robert Emmons, professor at the University of California, Davis. Emmons’s early work can be found in the impressive 384-page tome, The Psychology of Gratitude, published by Oxford University, and edited by Emmons and his colleague, Michael McCullough. You and I can be grateful (yes, pun intended) that Emmons is also a prolific writer for those of us who are not research psychologists. In his fascinating article, “Why Gratitude is Good,” Emmons cites research that shows that people who practice gratitude experience the following benefits: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, more joy and pleasure, more compassion, and less loneliness. Harvard Health, reporting on Emmons’s research, notes that people who, in a study done by Emmons, wrote down things for which they were grateful “were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”
There’s little question that gratitude makes a major, positive difference in our lives. I expect most of us know this from our own experience, in addition to what we learn from the research. It certainly seems reasonable to conclude that gratitude would make a positive difference in the lives of people who have entered the third third of life (folks 55 and over, more or less). But, I wonder, has anyone studied this explicitly? Is there scientific evidence that shows that folks in the third third benefit from being thankful?
Yes, there is. And what we find is quite striking.
Studies on Gratitude and Aging
I have been able to locate five fairly recent studies on gratitude and aging. These studies come from countries throughout the world and focus on a variety of implications of gratitude. I’ll summarize them briefly.
- Gratitude leads to less loneliness in the Netherlands. 163 Dutch adults between 41 and 92 were studied. Analysis showed that people who practiced gratitude experienced less loneliness (a common problem among many senior adults). 
- Gratitude enhances wellbeing in England. Study of 88 people between 60-91 in northern England. They were given a baseline questionnaire. Then, for 14 days they kept a “three good things” diary. After that they took the questionnaire again, and then again in another month. “The ﬁndings of this study suggest that the three good things gratitude diary can enhance eudemonic wellbeing and reduce perceived stress in a population of older adults.” So, gratitude leads to overall flourishing and less stress. 
- Gratitude lessens anxiety and depression in Spain. 46 people studied in Spain, 60-93 years, with average age 71. The researchers report: “We employed a program which consists of training based on autobiographical memory, forgiveness and gratitude. State and trait anxiety, depression, general memory, specific memories, life satisfaction and subjective happiness were measured. The results revealed that participants who followed the program (experimental group) showed a significant decrease in state anxiety and depression as well as an increase in specific memories, life satisfaction and subjective happiness, compared with the placebo group. Conclusion: Our program offers promising results and provides new evidence for the effectiveness of positive interventions in the field of psychogerontology, helping increase subjective well-being and quality of life in older adults by focusing interventions on the enhancement of personal and social resources for being happy.” 
- Gratitude leads to less fear of frailty among older adults in Sweden. 24 community-dwelling adults in a smaller urban community in western Sweden, with mean age of 81 years and a range of 77–90. Study focused on fear of frailty among older adults, something common for people in the latter stage of the third third. People had less fear of frailty if they had: “sufficient bodily resources for security and opportunities,” “structures that promote security and opportunities,” “feeling valuable in relation to the outside world,” and “choosing gratitude instead of worries.” Note: choosing gratitude instead of worries contributed significantly to less fear of frailty. 
- Gratitude helps people feel less anxiety about death in China. 83 older adults, mean age 62.7. Assigned to three groups, to record gratitude, hassle, neutral. Question: Does gratitude help people feel less anxiety about their own death? “Participants in the gratitude induction reported lower death anxiety than the hassle and the neutral condition. . . .” “By reexamining life events with a thankful attitude, people may become less fearful of death due to a sense that life has been well-lived. Because gratitude can be induced using a very brief procedure, there are broad applications in clinical and health-care settings for the relief of death anxiety.” 
Each of these studies shows that gratitude among older adults has a variety of positive effects. Part of what is striking about these studies is their cultural and geographical diversity. This fact suggests that the pluses of gratitude are not culture bound, but are shared widely among human beings.
Reasons to Be Grateful
We who base our lives on Scripture know that gratitude is something we should practice regularly (for example, Psalm 105:1; 1 Thes 5:18). We give thanks to God in obedience to biblical teaching and because God deserves it. Moreover, we believe that our expressions of gratitude can give joy to God, much as a human parent delights in a genuine “thank you” from their child. All of this gives us ample reason to give thanks to God in every season of life, including the third third.
But, psychological research adds another reason for gratitude. Giving thanks is good for the “thanker,” not just the “thankee.” This is true throughout the seasons of life. Gratitude in the third third, however, has particular power to help folks flourish in ways that are especially relevant to the challenges they face in the third third of life.
If you’d like to try a gratitude experiment for yourself, check out this blog post: “A Gratitude Experiment.”
Looking for More on the Third Third of Life?
You can find much more about the third third of life by checking out our Third Third Resources page.
 “Gratitude and loneliness in adults over 40 years: examining the role of psychological flexibility and engaged living.” Journal of Aging and Mental Health, Sept 2019.
 “Using a Gratitude Intervention to Enhance Well-Being in Older Adults.” Journal of Happiness Studies, June 2014.
 “A program of positive intervention in the elderly: memories, gratitude and forgiveness.” Journal of Aging and Mental Health, May 2014;18(4):463-70.
 “Self-respect through ability to keep fear of frailty at a distance: Successful ageing from the perspective of community-dwelling older people.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, March 2013.
 “Gratitude lessens death anxiety,” European Journal of Ageing, Volume 8 (3) – Aug 4, 2011.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.