Expression and Application of Gratitude in College Students | Biber

written by:

Duke Biber
University of West Georgia


The purpose of this study was to examine daily reflections of gratitude in an undergraduate sample. Undergraduate students (n = 52) from a southeastern university in the United States recorded one video each day, for 14 days, describing that for which they were grateful. Participants recorded the video journal using their personal smartphone or tablet and uploaded the video to Qualtrics. Qualitative analysis included transcription, reducing the transcriptions, coding, and thematizing the codes into major themes. Four major themes emerged from the transcripts: 1) family support, 2) friendships, 3) daily needs, and 4) personal growth. The themes were analyzed in regard to the “Broaden-and-Build” model, in light of previous research, and with tips for practitioner application. Positive emotional expression Broadens-and-Builds thought-action repertoires, serving as a catalyst for positive health behavior regulation. Practical gratitude application is also discussed in regard to student, faculty, and workplace development.

Keywords: Gratitude, Broaden-and-Build, positive psychology, college

As high school students advance into college, they experience a variety of novel situations, experiences, social pressures, and academic expectations (Dvořáková et al., 2017; Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010). College students often struggle to successfully adapt to life at college, oftentimes experiencing poor sleeping habits, academic struggles, low productivity, impaired social connectedness, and mental health issues and illness, to name a few (Colby et al., 2009; Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010; Jensen, 2003; Kessler et al., 1995). While students struggle to transition to college, research has revealed that students’ mindsets regarding expectations and interpretation of events can impact transition and thriving in college (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). Students who are emotionally mindful and express positive emotions are successfully able to transition, cope, and thrive in college (Fredrickson, 2013; Soria et al., 2016). For example, people induced to feel and express positive emotions are more trusting socially, inclusive across social categories, have higher executive functioning, perspective-taking and compassion, emotional well-being, and satisfaction with life, feel more connected with roommates, are more resilient, resourceful, and function at more optimal levels (Fredrickson, 2013).

Analytical Framework: The Broaden-and-Build Model

One theory to help understand the impact of positive emotions and behavior on well-being is the “Broaden-and-Build” model (Frederickson, 2004). Frederickson’s (2004) “Broaden-and-Build” model theorizes that positive affect, such as gratitude, a) broadens how individuals view the world and the lens through which individuals view events (i.e. momentary thought-action repertoire), b) reverses negative emotions, c) boosts psychological resiliency, and d) triggers an upward spiral towards emotional well-being because of the aforementioned psychological resiliency. The current study focuses primarily on the impact of positive emotions on momentary thought-action repertoires, and continued qualitative research is needed to understand and evaluate the other components of the model. Positive emotions, such as gratitude, joy, hope, and awe, expand how a person perceives their environment, their thoughts, and how they can react (i.e., behave) in a given situation. This broadened perspective can promote behaviors of curiosity, intentionality, flexibility, and growth (Fredrickson, 2013). Negative emotions tend to diminish momentary thought action repertoire.  For example, moments of fear diminish attention to focusing solely on removing the fear stimuli or escaping. In terms of biological survival, such a reaction to fear was understandable as a method of life preservation. However, most individuals, such as college students, do not experience fear-inducing, life threatening situations in the college setting. Students often experience negative emotions related to stress, transitioning to college, academic pressure, poor coping skills, and personal relationships (Damer & Melendres, 2011; Fiori & Consedine, 2013; Garett et al., 2017). On the other hand, a positive emotion, such as joy, provides an individual with a wide array of possible behavioral responses, encouraging an individual to seek opportunities that further promote positive experiences (Fredrickson, 2013). Gratitude is a positive emotion that may promote a broadening of perceptions of emotions and stimuli and responding with more openness and learning to new situations (Frederickson 2001; 2004). Such learning has the potential to promote curiosity, motivation, and willingness to experience and thrive in novel situations (Frederickson, 2004).

Gratitude can be defined as “part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world” (Wood et al., 2010). Gratitude has been linked to a wide variety of health benefits, such as improved psychological and mental health, the Big 5 psychological traits of extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, social functioning, emotional warmth, emotional functioning, and life satisfaction (Joseph & Wood, 2010; Peterson et al., 2007; Wood et al., 2008). Gratitude is also linked to greater physical health, vitality, and agency (McCullough et al., 2002). Grateful individuals even report less stress and better sleep habits than less grateful individuals (Krause, 2006; Wood et al., 2009a). Much of the research on gratitude is correlational in nature. However, little research has examined the impact gratitude training can have on physical, social, emotional, and behavioral health in college students.

Research indicates the ability for people to learn to become aware of and express gratitude across a variety of situations (Fredrickson, 2013; Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006). One form of gratitude training is journaling or recalling moments of gratefulness throughout the day. A self-directed gratitude journal, in which individuals report three things they are grateful for, has been found to improve areas of social and emotional health (see above references). However, further research is needed to understand how college students perceive the practice of gratitude. The purpose of this study was to qualitatively examine daily reflections of gratitude in an undergraduate sample. Following the results is a discussion of how gratitude can be incorporated into course content to promote engagement, learning, and flourishing.



Undergraduate students (n = 52) from a southeastern university in the United States completed the two-week video diary journal. All participants were undergraduate students attending face-to-face classes (n = 42 females; n = 10 males).


Demographic Questionnaire.

This measure solicited self-reported gender, race and/or ethnicity, and school grade classification.

Gratitude Journal.

Participants completed a two-week gratitude video journal. Participants were asked to upload a video expressing their gratitude once daily, for fourteen consecutive days. Participants responded to the prompt, “Describe what you are grateful for.” Participants recorded the video journal using their personal smartphone or tablet and uploaded the video to Qualtrics.


Upon IRB approval, participants were recruited from classes at a southeastern university in the United States. Consenting participants were asked to complete a daily video diary for 14 days in which they were to record what they were grateful for in life. Participants were able to interpret this prompt without any bias or leading statements. Participants were asked to upload their gratitude videos each day to the Qualtrics online system. Participants had the option to record the gratitude video using their smartphone, tablet, or laptop device to upload the daily gratitude video. The Qualtrics online system was used to ensure private and secure upload of each gratitude video, and the link was only sent to consenting participants. The gratitude videos were not public or shareable once uploaded to Qualtrics.

Data Analysis

The initial step of data analysis included the transcription of the video diaries. Miles and Huberman’s (1994) three-step technique guided the data analysis. The first step included data reduction, in which the researcher condensed the data through selecting, focusing, simplifying, abstracting, and transforming the transcripts. The second step included the coding of the transcripts. Lastly, the data display step included the organization and assembly of the coded transcripts into themes. During the last analysis step, the researcher reviewed and synthesized the findings, and drew conclusions.

Previous research by Fredrickson (2004) supports the use of gratitude as one of the ten key positive emotions that broadens thinking and builds both social and psychological resources. Expression of gratitude supports the Broaden-and-Build Model in that the gratitude promotes cognitive awareness of what an individual has, motivates a person to act positively towards others, and encourages others to act with gratitude in the future (McCullough et al., 2001). Essentially, gratitude seems to “broaden people’s modes of thinking as they creatively consider a wide array of actions that might benefit others” (Fredrickson, 2004, p. 151). Being reciprocal and others-oriented in nature, the practice of gratitude can stretch how an individual thinks about repaying another person to whom they are thankful, promoting creative thought and behavior.


After analyzing 14 days of gratitude journals for 52 participants, four major themes emerged: 1) family support, 2) friendships, 3) daily needs, and 4) personal growth. The following section includes aspects of each theme. Exemplar quotes are used to highlight how participants talked about each theme.

Theme 1: Family Support

The majority of participants (n = 48/52; 92.3%) mentioned the importance of family in their daily life. Students expressed how family supported them in the pursuit of their dreams, in times of difficulty, and as a form of trustworthy communication while in college. Family support was expressed by participants, regardless of whether family lived in the same or different state as the participant. One participant shared,

The first things I am thankful for my mom and my dad. I know that is basic, but it’s really true. And being divorced they still work so hard to provide for me and I really appreciate that. My grandparents also go above and beyond of what they can do as grandparents and are there for me all the time.

Another participant agreed, expressing gratitude for family in regard to encouragement and inspiration. They shared, “I am thankful for my son and the rest of my family, the unconditional love, the encouragement, and the words of affirmation sometimes is really what I need.”

Thankfulness for family from psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives was the most widely discussed theme by participants. It is important to remember that gratitude aligns with the Broaden-and-Build model by encouraging creative thinking and positive behavior as discussed previously in this paper.

Theme 2: Friendships

In addition to familial support, participants (n = 45/52; 86.5%) indicated gratitude for friendships as a source of support in education, extracurricular activities, and in college overall. For example, one collegiate athlete expressed the importance of friends in regard to their athletic motivation.

“The second thing I’m thankful for is another one of my teammates, she is my weightlifting partner, she really pushes me to go above and beyond of what I think I can do, so she really helps me reach different goals that I thought I could never achieve.”

Another participant discussed friendships as an overall source of support saying, “I’m thankful for my great friends because without them I wouldn’t be anywhere. They are definitely a really great support system and I could never say thank you enough to them.” A third participant discussed friendships as a source of support in time of difficulty and throughout the transition to college. “I’m thankful for having friendships. They are just a big part of my life, especially since I am living away from home, they give me the support I need.”

Each of these examples highlights gratitude as a source of holistic support across various domains in college. Participants expressed gratitude for friendships that seemed to promote flourishing during optimal and difficult times in college.

Theme 3: Daily Needs

The third theme that emerged from participants (n = 43/52; 82.7%) was gratitude for daily needs, including food, water, shelter, physical abilities, utilities, and transportation. One participant shared,

I am thankful for the little things that most people take advantage of. The first is talking and being able to communicate with different individuals. That is a blessing. Being able to walk with no troubles. And lastly, being able to breathe.

Participants expressed gratitude for basic needs with an understanding that not all people in the world have food, shelter, and other basic needs met.

Today I am thankful for our shoes, shoes protect our feet, and our clothing, it gives us a sense of privacy depending on how we dress but also protects us from foreign things outside our body, and lastly, a functioning stone and oven. It really just came to me how many people do not have these reliable resources and aren’t able to cook in their homes.

Another participant spoke specifically about the quality drinking water adding, “And also I am thankful for access to clean water. There are lots of places in the world that have trouble with having water and they have to go outside their homes to get it.”

Participants emphasized gratitude for physical qualities, basic needs, and provisions that are generally taken for granted or expected.  Participants seemed to express gratitude with perspective that not all individuals in the world are as fortunate.

Theme 4: Personal Growth

The final theme participants (n = 39/52; 75%) discussed was gratitude for the personal growth they experienced through college from opportunities, education, and learning through personal mistakes.

I am thankful for how independent and mature I have become over the years. I don’t really call my mom or brother for help like that anymore, and I am grateful for that because I would always wonder how that would be when I got older and I am very very proud of myself thus far.

Participants expressed the importance of learning through shortcomings, failures, and setbacks.

One person shared, “I am thankful for my mistakes. They help me learn a lot of lessons and I gain from them.”

Participants also discussed the importance of personal improvement through the opportunity of education and self-determination.  One person said, “I am grateful that I have the opportunity to better myself every day, and that I can go to school and educate myself to better myself and get further in the future.”

Participants collectively described gratitude to pursue personal goals, persevere through difficulties, and gain professional growth experiences throughout college.


The purpose of this study was to qualitatively examine college student gratitude practice through the Broaden-and-Build lens to understand if gratitude had a positive effect on student experiences. Gratitude is the recognition of the value of a benefit in one’s life or the acknowledgement of a received benefit from another (Lambert et al., 2009). The results of the analysis revealed four main themes: 1) family support, 2) friendships, 3) daily needs, and 4) personal growth. Each of the themes are discussed in regard to previous quantitative and qualitative research, in respect to the Broaden-and-Build model, and in terms of classroom application.

The participants of the qualitative study indicated the importance of family support when expressing gratitude. The importance of family support is supported by previous quantitative research with college student adjustment (Dorrance Hall et al., 2017; Khallad & Jabr, 2015). Expression of gratitude for family, especially maternal support, has been found to promote student outcomes as well (Riskin et al., 2019). In addition to family support, participants expressed gratitude for friendships and social support. Social support has been linked to positive mental and physical health (Taylor, 2011). Both family and friend support are crucial to student transition to college, academic success, and holistic well-being (Carlson, 2014; MacGeorge et al., 2011). The third theme was the expression of gratitude for the fulfillment of daily needs. This theme is consistent with the Broaden-and-Build model in that the awareness and understanding of what is going well in one’s life helps shift the focus away from what one does not have, promoting resilience, optimism, and well-being (Gabana et al., 2017; Lambert et al., 2009).  Daily practice of gratitude, whether through a gratitude journal or interpersonal sharing of thankfulness has been shown to improve classroom motivation at the university level (Nawa & Yamagishi, 2021). The fourth and final theme was that of personal growth. Once again, this theme supports the Broaden-and-Build model in that expression of positive emotions and perseverance through difficult situations can enhance perceptions of support, awareness of available resources, and feelings of resilience (Fredrickson, 2004; Gabana et al., 2017).

Gratitude training has a myriad of benefits as outlined by the Broaden-and-Build model of thought-action repertoires (Algoe, 2012; Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Fredrickson, 2004; McCullough et al., 2001; Wood et al., 2010). Positive emotions, such as gratitude, expand an individual’s perception, various thoughts, and potential behaviors in the moment, promoting curiosity, growth, discovery of new skills, and knowledge acquisition (Fredrickson, 2013). Gratitude also enhances emotional self-regulation, or the ability for an individual to impact the type of emotions experienced, when such emotions are experienced, and how emotions are experienced (Fredrickson, 2004; Gross, 1998). Expression of gratitude also encourages positive affect, subjective well-being, relationships, and physical health (Wood et al., 2010). Negative emotions tend to diminish momentary thought action repertoire. For example, participants in this study expressed gratitude for family support and friendships throughout positive experiences and difficulties in college. These themes support the notion that gratitude for friends and family may encourage flexibility, perseverance, and perspective based on the awareness and availability of social support.  As research indicates that college students struggle to self-regulate emotions and behaviors, gratitude training may enhance emotional awareness, promote thought action repertoires, and resultant self-regulation (Biber & Ellis, 2017; Camara et al., 2015).

The results of this study reveal the importance of the Broaden-and-Build model to positive affect. Additionally, this study helps surface how college students view their world and the events they experience (Fredrickson, 2004). Examples from the study include encouragement, communication, trustworthiness, and support from family and friends. Participants also expressed gratitude for personal growth throughout gratitude, indicating a positive perspective and growth mindset, even in spite of difficulty. Another example includes the realization of daily needs being met by participants, which seemed to put perceived difficulties in perspective, promoting thankfulness and positivity in the moment. Research indicates that individuals can develop gratitude and, that doing so, can promote daily life functioning (Wong et al., 2017). This study affirms those findings.

This qualitative investigation aligns with previous intervention research that indicates the efficacy of gratitude interventions in the form of compiling a gratitude list, writing a grateful letter, or verbally expressing gratitude (Davis et al., 2016). Gratitude interventions can be short in duration and length, require little to no equipment for practitioners or researchers, and minimal effort from participants. Furthermore, research has found that participants tend to enjoy gratitude exercises or interventions (Geraghty et al., 2010). Finally, gratitude practice enables individuals to recall meaningful memories, engage in social reflection, and promote others-orientation through expressing gratitude for others (McCullough et al., 2001). For example, this study incorporated short, daily video expressions of gratitude with minimal burden or obligation for participants. The majority of participants emphasized thankfulness for social connections and support, were able to view their experiences with perspective of common humanity, and expressed appreciation for personal, social, and academic opportunities. The themes from this study support previous research that gratitude broadens thought action repertoires, allowing individuals to view experiences (i.e. college) in flexible and creative ways (Davis et al., 2016; Fredrickson, 2004).

The present study examined themes of gratitude in a college student sample. As college students transition to higher education, gratitude training may help them effectively adapt and cope with stressors or difficulties, helping promote academic success, healthy behavior regulation, social connectedness, and mental wellness (Colby et al., 2009; Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010; Jensen, 2003; Kessler et al., 1995).

Practical Application and Conclusions

Practitioners and professors can implement gratitude training with clients and students as a way of improving awareness, creating additional thought action repertoires, fostering mental, emotional, and social well-being, and self-regulation of emotions and behaviors (Boggio et al., 2019). At a time when self-care and well-being are being discussed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are presented with an opportunity to develop and share strategies and put them into practical use. Given the stress in higher education and across our culture, these practices are no longer simply nice add-ons, they are essential to the thriving and well-being of students, faculty, and staff.


Gratitude might be exemplified by faculty at the start of each class, through active discussion of gratitude and thankfulness, or through daily journaling (Biber, 2020). Engaging in group discussions of gratefulness with classmates even promotes a positive mood and perceived social support (Swickert et al., 2019). For example, faculty could incorporate a “gratitude box” in which students write and place what they are grateful for as they enter or leave the classroom each week. It is also possible for faculty to integrate gratitude through mindfulness, asking students to close their eyes for one minute at the beginning of the class to visualize what they are grateful for and set a grateful intention for the rest of the class. Students could also use the “think-pair-share” model as an ice-breaker in class, taking time to express gratitude internally, pair up with someone they don’t know in class, and share a moment of gratitude. This activity could promote the social connectedness in the class and teach students how gratitude can benefit their peers. This is not an exhaustive list, and both faculty and staff can determine the best methods for implementing gratitude with students and employees.


Student affairs practitioners can also partner with students and staff to foster this culture of gratitude. It is possible for student affairs professionals to create a culture of gratitude across campus through campus-wide campaigns, college-level acts of kindness, and individual expression of gratitude. For example, the Sources of Strength program effectively incorporates large-scale gratitude campaigns to have a campus wide impact (Wyman et al., 2010). Murals could be created in which students in dormitories, classrooms, the student recreation center, or any high-traffic areas write what they are grateful for and place it on a mural for others to see and read. Recording mass media campaigns through social media using university hashtags or handles in which students talk about gratitude can indirectly impact the student body. Individual editorials or interviews can also be conducted and published with students who have overcome difficulty and express gratitude for such experiences. This practice can normalize perseverance and grit through difficulties for other students. Campus organizations can also encourage student-level conference presentations and the attendance at national conferences in which they can learn about positive psychology, holistic wellness, and engage with scholarly leaders in the field to provoke new ways of thinking. Such multi-level gratitude has been found to promote individual growth and development, create cohesion and involvement amongst employees, and enhance university camaraderie and collegiality (Riordan, 2013).

Future research could continue to examine the efficacy of gratitude interventions on incoming freshmen and from a longitudinal perspective through college graduation. It is also important to understand how perceptions of gratitude may impact the college experience across race, gender, socio-economic status, and culture. Furthermore, interventions promoting awareness of gratitude could help students broaden their thought action repertoires, promoting an array of positive behavioral responses. Also, study of the impact of faculty gratitude expression on perceived gratitude and engagement of university students is needed. Continuing to examine positive psychology and educate college students on such factors will continue to benefit their social emotional learning and college experiences.


The main purpose of this study was to examine the practice of gratitude using the Broaden-and-Build model, and the impact of such expression on college student experiences. The four major themes that gratitude practice encouraged were the recognition of family support, friendships, daily needs, and personal growth throughout the college experience. Gratitude is a simple practice that can be tailored to the individual, classroom, or organization based on convenience, available resources, and time. Whether a quick mindful moment of gratitude, daily written expression of gratitude through journaling, or social media posts of grateful moments, consistent practice seems to promote social awareness, positive emotional expression, and appreciation of difficult/novel experiences in college.

Questions to Consider

  • What are you grateful for?
  • How can you incorporate gratitude with your co-workers, employees, or students?
  • How might daily gratitude impact your leadership abilities?
  • What workplace or personal barriers can be minimized through consistent gratitude expression?


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Author Bio

Duke Biber joined the Department of Sport Management, Wellness, and Physical education at the University of West Georgia in 2018. He has experience teaching sport and exercise psychology and a variety of fitness courses. His research interests include exercise adherence with a focus on identity development via self-compassion, mindfulness, and spirituality.