How Gratitude Helps Us Feel Whole

Psychologist Xijing Wang argues that gratitude might be the antidote to objectification.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 28, 2022

A new study published in the Journal Of Positive Psychology claims that experiencing and expressing gratitude can make people feel less used and objectified.

I recently spoke to psychologist Xijing Wang from the City University of Hong Kong to understand the humanizing effects of gratitude. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is objectification?

Objectification means treating others merely as things or tools that can aid in one's goal achievement while denying others' autonomy, needs, and feelings. Being objectified is commonly experienced.

For instance, employees can be treated as mere instruments to aid the financial success of their employers, students can be treated by their classmates as note-takers, and women can be perceived and treated solely as an object of sexual desire without regard to their personality or dignity.

Social philosopher Nussbaum proposed that objectification occurs when the agent:

  1. treats a target as a tool for his or her own purpose (instrumentality)
  2. As interchangeable with other objects (fungibility)
  3. As lacking in boundary integrity and violable (violability)
  4. As though the target can be owned (ownership)
  5. As lacking in autonomy or self-determination (denial of autonomy)
  6. As lacking in agency or activity (inertness)
  7. Or, as someone whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account (denial of subjectivity)

Nussbaum further argued that the presence of these seven features qualify a case as objectification, while viewing instrumentality as the root of objectification.

Holland and Haslam clustered these features into two categories:

  1. Treating another person as a thing (instrumentality, fungibility, violability, and ownership)
  2. And denying personhood (denial of autonomy, agency, and subjectivity)

Why is studying reducing objectification important?

Objectification exists in various domains, including the workplace, intergroup relations, medical field, as well as general social interaction occurring on a daily basis.

Importantly, objectification causes severe consequences, ranging from interpersonal indifference, reduced empathy and helping, aggression and bully, to even killing and genocide.

Therefore, it is important to find interventions to alleviate objectification, an area that has received little attention from scholars previously.

What is gratitude?

When we talk about gratitude, we usually refer to the feeling of being grateful. It is positive emotional feedback given to those who have assisted or provided valuable things.

A common example of gratitude occurs when A assists B in a task, and B feels grateful to A for his/her assistance. We also sometimes express our gratitude to valuable and meaningful things in our lives, rather than the people who are the targets of our gratitude.

For example, we could feel thankful for being able to enjoy beautiful scenery, warm sunshine, gentle breeze, and so on.

In brief, experiencing gratitude can help us to realize the good things in our lives and recognize their sources.

What are the previous findings on gratitude?

Gratitude is an obviously positive experience for people. Most studies on gratitude have found that gratitude benefits people in both intrapersonal and interpersonal domains:

  1. Intrapersonally, gratitude can promote well-being and happiness. Gratitude increases positive feelings and life satisfaction while decreasing negative feelings such as depression and anxiety.
  1. Interpersonally, gratitude promotes prosocial behaviors and reduces aggression.

What did we find exactly?

We hypothesized and found that gratitude could reduce objectification toward general others (i.e., people who are not the benefactors). Specifically, we conducted three studies:

  • Study 1 provided the initial evidence that dispositional gratitude correlated negatively with objectification, i.e., perceiving and treating general others instrumentally and neglecting their inner thoughts and feelings.
  • In Study 2, we investigated whether gratitude could reduce the objectification of general others. To this end, we manipulated participants' state gratitude by asking them to write a gratitude letter. We found that participants in the gratitude condition (vs. control condition) were less likely to perceive general others in an objectified manner.
  • Study 3 tested whether the effect of gratitude could be applied to an imagined working context, an environment where objectification is most likely to occur. To this end, we first induced gratitude in participants and then measured their objectification toward a group of factory workers. Consistent with the first two studies, a temporarily induced state of gratitude reduced participants' objectification towards these factory workers.

Why does gratitude reduce objectification?

Gratitude encourages other-oriented behaviors that are characterized by greater sensitivity and attunement to others. Previous findings have found that gratitude can reduce negative interaction.

For example, gratitude can inhibit aggression. This is because gratitude has the ability to shift focus away from ourselves. When feeling grateful, we are more concerned about others' (including the benefactors and uninvolved third parties') emotions, thoughts, and actions, which is antithetical to harmful behavior.

Seeing others as tools and denying their personhood are the core features of objectification. One of the reasons for objectification is that we focus (too much) on our own needs, and thus others may become tools to meet our needs. That is, objectification often results from self-centeredness or self-interested behavior (i.e., considering how others can be used to achieve one's own goal)

Taking sexual objectification as an example, women may be the instruments of desire for heterosexual guys who have strong sexual drives. Similarly, powerful bosses are more likely to objectify their employees in the workplace since the employers have strong goal mindsets and require instrumentalized people to meet their objectives.

The effect of gratitude on weakening objectification can be due to its ability to reduce peoples' focus on their own needs. That is, when people become less concerned with their own wants and desires, they are less likely to see others as instruments to fulfill those needs and are less likely to fail to consider others' personhood.

What can people do to increase their gratitude in their everyday life?

There are a few easy ways to cultivate gratitude in our daily lives.

For example, we might spend a few minutes every day thinking about the wonderful things in life (e.g., a movie, books, or TV show we enjoy, or even being able to bask in sunshine outside). This is referred to as reflection, and it can help us promote our thankfulness for life.

Similarly, we may be grateful to nature when we travel specifically to see the magnificent environment.

Another easy method is showing appreciation for others. When we thank someone who has helped us by writing a thank-you note, this simple gesture powerfully elicits interpersonal gratitude.

The biggest challenge for some people is to open their mouths to express their gratitude. Maybe they are shy or just don't know how to convey such messages. We often tell these people that the benefactors will be very happy when they know you are grateful to them.

And also, expressing gratitude doesn't need to cost you anything financially. So just do it.