Study: Good sleep fosters psychological well-being, gratitude

Published on January 21, 2013 at 1:46 AM · No Comments

We all know that getting a good night's sleep is good for our general health and well-being. But new research is highlighting a more surprising benefit of good sleep: more feelings of gratitude for relationships.

"A plethora of research highlights the importance of getting a good night's sleep for physical and psychological well-being, yet in our society, people still seem to take pride in needing, and getting, little sleep," says Amie Gordon of the University of California, Berkeley. "And in the past, research has shown that gratitude promotes good sleep, but our research looks at the link in the other direction and, to our knowledge, is the first to show that everyday experiences of poor sleep are negatively associated with gratitude toward others - an important emotion that helps form and maintain close social bonds."

Social psychologists are increasingly finding that "prosocial" behavior - including expressing gratitude and giving to others - is key to our psychological well-being. Even how we choose to spend our money on purchases affects our health and happiness. And children develop specific ways to help others from a very young age. Gordon and other researchers will be presenting some of these latest findings at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting today in New Orleans.

Sleeping to feel grateful

A large body of research has documented that people who experience gratitude are happier and healthier. In three new studies, Gordon and Serena Chen, also of the the University of California, Berkeley, explored how poor sleep affects people's feelings of gratitude.

In the first study, people who experienced a poor night's sleep were less grateful after listing five things in life for which they were appreciative than were people who had slept well the night before. The researchers adapted the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, which measures sleep quality and number of hours slept, among other variables, to evaluate the previous night's sleep.

In the second study, participants recorded their sleep from the previous night for two weeks and their feelings of gratitude. The researchers found a decline in gratitude associated with poor sleep, and those participants reported feeling more selfish those days.

The final study looked at heterosexual couples and found that people tend to feel less grateful toward their romantic partners if either they or their partners generally sleep poorly. "In line with this finding, people reported feeling less appreciated by their partners if they or their partner tends to sleep poorly, suggesting that the lack of gratitude is transmitted to the partner," Gordon says.

"Poor sleep is not just experienced in isolation," Gordon says. "Instead, it influences our interactions with others, such as our ability to be grateful, a vital social emotion."

Giving away money to feel wealthy

Just as expressing gratitude confers benefits, so too does giving to others. New research shows that people all around the world - from Canada to Uganda, from South Africa to India - derive more happiness from spending money on others than they do on themselves.

"For the first time, we show that giving away money or spending it on others confers the ironic psychological benefit of increasing the giver's sense of wealth," says Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and co-author with Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia of the upcoming book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. In a suite of new, not-yet published, studies, Norton and colleagues showed that charitable giving makes people feel wealthier.

This research follows on other recent work published in Psychological Science by Norton and colleagues that shows that giving time to others - from helping with homework to shoveling a neighbors' driveway - actually makes people feel that they have more time. "In fact, giving time away alleviates people's sense of time famine even more than receiving unexpected windfalls of free time."

That people feel wealthier from spending money on others may explain why poor individuals tend to give away a higher fraction of their income than members of the middle class do. In one study, researchers reported that Americans earning less than $20,000 a year give a higher percentage of their income to charity than others earning up to $300,000 a year.

"Our results suggest when the poor give money away, that very act might mitigate their feelings of poverty," Norton says. "More broadly than this specific benefit, our investigation contributes to the growing body of research documenting the benefits of prosocial behavior, which include greater happiness, reduced mortality, and better immune function."

Buying experiences to feel happy

In related research, psychologists are finding that spending money on experiential purchases, such as vacations, concerts, and meals out, tends to bring us more happiness than material purchases, such as clothing, jewelry, or electronic gadgets. Amit Kumar and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University are investigating one potential explanation for this difference: that experiences prompt storytelling more than possessions do.

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