Rutgers psychologist Nancy Fagley examines the benefits of appreciative feelings

Expressing or feeling genuine appreciation can have a powerful influence on your emotional outlook.

This article was updated in November 2012

As Thanksgiving, our national holiday of appreciation, nears, it’s easy to become distracted by travel plans or the search for the best sweet potato recipe and overlook the main theme of the day.

Call it gratitude or a focus on the good things you have in your life – appreciation deserves to be noticed, celebrated and, well, appreciated.

Yet the capacity to be appreciative is much more than a rote social nicety.

Expressing or feeling genuine appreciation can have a powerful influence on emotional outlook, psychological well-being, interpersonal bonds and even problem-solving, according to Rutgers psychologist Nancy Fagley, who conducts research on appreciativeness.

Appreciation is both a disposition and something that can be learned over time.

Feelings of appreciation may be even stronger this year as tens of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy.

“Losing possessions or seeing property damaged can make us thankful that our family and friends are safe, even while feeling angry or sad – one does not preclude the other,’’ Fagley said. “One does not preclude the other. But feeling appreciation for what one still has may provide the strength to see one through the challenges of recovery and rebuilding.”

Real appreciativeness has two chief characteristics: acknowledging the value and meaning of something (an event, person, behavior or object) and feeling a positive emotional connection to it. “It is cognitive and affective,” Fagley says. “If it’s genuine appreciation, it involves both components.”

Appreciative feelings may arise when someone helps you or gives you a gift, or you see a beautiful sunset. It can be stirred by the wonder of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or watching an infant’s birth.

“That kind of world view, where you focus on positive events and notice the positive aspects of our lives, counteracts the tendency to take things for granted,” says Fagley, an associate professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP).

Fagley hadn’t paid much attention to the subject of appreciativeness until one of her doctoral students, Mitchel Adler, kept bringing it up. “I thought, ‘How could this be important if no one is talking about it?’” she recalls.

As good scientists, she and Adler, who is now a private practice psychotherapist and speaker in Davis, California, first sought to define the types of appreciation and design a scale to measure them. They identified eight aspects in which appreciation arises: A “have” focus (centering thoughts on what one has); awe; response to ritual; delight in present moment; self/social comparison; gratitude; loss/adversity; interpersonal feelings.

Because appreciation is both a disposition and something that can be learned over time, the two saw merit in developing a tool to measure it. The scale they built scores each aspect as a subscale, with the total of the eight yielding the overall level of appreciativeness. Those scores found that even after controlling for factors of optimism, spirituality, and emotional self-awareness, feeling appreciative was significantly related to life satisfaction and positive affect.

By paying attention to the simplest benefits we have, such as a warm home and ample food, “people notice those things and realize that although we have problems, we also have a lot of things to be thankful for,” Fagley says.

Threatening events may produce appreciation as well, such as a soldier’s safe return from war or a near-miss traffic accident. Indeed, she notes, people who are involved in disasters such as tornadoes or traumatic experiences often express appreciation for what they still have rather than what they have lost. “I think one of the strategies people use is to focus on what’s still working in their lives,” she says. “That can help them deal with the challenges.”  

When appreciativeness is expressed between individuals, it produces positive emotions in both directions. “Research shows it’s important for the people hearing the appreciation as well as for the person expressing it. It fosters a closer bond,” Fagley says.

Why study appreciation? Fagley notes that sustained appreciativeness produces positive emotions, which support creative problem-solving and life satisfaction. Researching the subject is “helpful in thinking about what thought processes or mechanisms might be responsible -- to know exactly what we should be increasing,” she says.

One time-honored appreciation-stirring technique -- counting your blessings -- has been shown to work. Before bedtime for a few months, subjects listed the things they were grateful for in their lives. “It appears to result in greater life satisfaction,” says Fagley. “I’ve tried it myself and it does feel as if it helps.”

In her research,Fagley is looking more closely at the eight aspects of appreciation that she and Adler defined, to see if the concepts should be further refined. She’s also examining personality differences in appreciativeness.

“I wanted to investigate whether appreciation (on its own) had value, and it did,” she says. “It made a pretty significant contribution to predicting well-being.” Fagley has collected data on social connections that show a correlation between appreciativeness and life satisfaction. She envisions using her research to develop exercises in appreciation to help increase feelings of well-being.   

Fagley discusses appreciation with her doctoral students in a GSAPP course on “Cognitive, Affective and Social Aspects of Behavior Through the Life Span.” Many of the students are training to become psychotherapists.

 “They’re thinking, ‘How can we engage in activities that generate positive emotions, to help our clients talk about more challenging issues?’” Fagley says. Using appreciativeness to open those doors could be a powerful tool in their future practices.