This paper reports the development and preliminary validation of a new Existential Gratitude Scale (EGS), designed to measure the tendency to give thanks in difficult times. This study is part of the research agenda of second-wave positive psychology (PP2.0) which emphasizes the positive psychology of suffering. After a pilot study based on a convenient sample, we did a validity study based on 186 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and regular participants. They completed the revised 13-item EGS, the Short Gratitude, Resentment, and Appreciation Test (SGRAT), the Spiritual Well-Being Scale (SWB) and the Trauma Screening Questionnaire (TSQ). Results supported the factorial validity and our hypothesis that the existential gratitude scale was associated with spiritual well-being while the dispositional gratitude scale is not; this association was shown to be dependent on the presence of symptoms of PTSD. These findings support our proposition that existential gratitude is distinct from the more general dispositional gratitude.
Positive psychology is the science of positive subjective experience and positive individual traits (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Positive psychology (PP) advocates research on positive constructs such as hope, wisdom, and gratitude. However, limitations of PP research and interventions have been pointed out from within and outside the PP community (e.g., Wong & Roy, 2018). The main critique of PP is that its exclusive focus on the positive can place an implicit burden on people to be happy when they are suffering (Ehrenreich, 2009; Held, 2004). Research has shown that there is a downside in pursuing happiness (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011), that there is an upside of negatives (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014), and that the pursuit of happiness can lead to unhappy people (Kim & Maglio, 2018). PP has also been criticized for classifying human experiences as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016; Wong & Tomer, 2011). Therefore, we need a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the ‘dialectical’ nature of flourishing, which involves the dynamic interplay between positives and negatives (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2015; Wong, 2011, 2016).
To meet the above challenges, PP 2.0 embraces the dark or negative side of human existence as the foundation for building the science of wellbeing and flourishing (Ivtzan et al., 2015; Wong, 2011). It takes the position that enduring or sustainable wellbeing for individuals and institutions can be best achieved by embracing and transforming the dark side of human existence. PP 2.0 emphasizes the need to overcome what is undesirable and unpleasant in order to achieve sustainable wellbeing (Wong & Tomer, 2011); happiness depends on the ‘inevitable dialectics between positive and negative aspects of living’ (Ryff & Singer, 2003). Frankl’s (1985) concept of tragic optimism in hopeless situations is a case in point (Wong, 2007; Wong & McDonald, 2002). Similarly, Wong’s concept of mature happiness in the midst of suffering is also based on a dialectical conceptualization (Wong & Bowers, 2018). These viewpoints are now included in PP 2.0.
The present study on existential gratitude is just another example of the PP 2.0 perspective on human flourishing, because of its inclusion on gratitude in difficult times. This line of research is important because most human emotions are complex, consisting of a mixture of positive and negative feelings. According to PP2.0, well being depends on our ability to hold two opposing thoughts/emotions at the same time and negotiate a dynamic adaptive balance in each situation. The ability to tolerate ambivalent emotions and the flexibility to move between two extremes depending on the context may be more important to one’s wellbeing than a single-minded pursuit of positivity.
The findings of the studies support the construct of existential gratitude as distinct from dispositional gratitude. The Existential Gratitude Scale will be useful in future research on the benefit of existential gratitude in populations suffering from trauma or illnesses as a part of the research agenda of PP2.0.
You can find a copy of the EGS here.
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