My name is Lilian Jans-Beken (49) and I am from the Netherlands. I am a late bloomer in science. Before I went to university at 39, I earned a living as a truck driver. But then, one day, my husband suggested that I go to university because he thought I could do it.
It turns out that he was right. As a result, I graduated from the Open University Netherlands in 2014 in Lifespan Psychology with a thesis on measuring gratitude. Four years later, in 2018, I received my Ph.D. at the Open University Netherlands based on my dissertation Appreciating Gratitude: New Perspectives on the Gratitude – Mental Health Connection.
Since then, I have continued my research on gratitude as an independent researcher under the direction of Dr. Paul T. P. Wong. I’m affiliated with the International Network on Personal Meaning and the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. Recently, I published a book in Dutch for the non-scientific audience called A Search for Gratitude, which contains life stories of people for whom gratitude plays an important role.
My Research Interest in Gratitude
My interest in gratitude arose from a personal experience of intense gratitude. I started to dive into the science of this topic. I learned that gratitude was a positive emotion and that it occurred after positive events. However, life is not just fun and laughter; it has its share of sorrow and suffering.
Accepting the totality of life is essential for achieving and maintaining good mental health, both in preventive as well as curative practice. This existential positive psychology view (PP 2.0) prepares us to be psychologically flexible in dealing with the inevitable storms of life. Studies show that dispositional gratitude is also a contributor to psychological flexibility (Frinking et al., in press).
Dispositional gratitude is thought to improve flourishing in people but not necessarily to reduce psychopathological complaints (Jans-Beken, 2019). This might be due to an emphasis on the positive experiences in questionnaires measuring dispositional gratitude. But we can also count our blessings during bad times, so a gratitude measure needs to include these adverse events.
Development of the Existential Gratitude Scale
Together with Dr. Wong, I developed a questionnaire measuring existential gratitude: The Existential Gratitude Scale. This scale measures gratitude in both good times and times of adversity. For example, one statement in this new scale says, “I am grateful for my life even in times of suffering.” Thus, existential gratitude is a broader or more comprehensive concept than dispositional gratitude.
According to perspective of PP2.0, we predicted that people with a high level of dispositional gratitude may not have a high level of existential gratitude, if they did not have much experience with suffering and overcoming adversity through faith and counting their blessings.
Therefore, existential gratitude is conceptually related to Viktor Frankl’s (1985) tragic optimism, which means that one can remain optimistic for the future in spite of adversity. Extending Frankl’s construct, Wong (2001, 2009) postulates that people can maintain their hope in hopeless situations only by accepting the harsh reality, affirming the intrinsic meaning or value of life, practicing self-transcendence and having faith in God, and showing courage in facing adversity. These characteristics also apply to existential gratitude with a difference in time orientation: optimism focuses on the future, while gratitude focuses on the past or present.
In our study, we found that people who reported more symptoms of PTSD also reported higher levels of existential gratitude but not dispositional gratitude (Jans-Beken & Wong, 2019). This is a clear sign that existential gratitude as measured with the Existential Gratitude Scale is distinct from dispositional gratitude.
Existential gratitude teaches us that we can transform painful emotions to wellbeing through thanksgiving. Our research on existential gratitude is part of PP 2.0 research program to bring out the best in people even in the worst circumstances.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Frinking, E., Jans-Beken, L. G. P. J., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Lataster, J., Jacobs, N., & Reijnders, J. (in press). Gratitude and loneliness in adults over 40 Years: Examining the role of psychological flexibility and engaged living. Aging & Mental Health.
Jans-Beken, L. G. P. J. (2019). The dialectic dynamics between trait gratitude subjective well-being and psychopathology across 30 weeks. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2019.1638228
Jans-Beken, L. G. P. J., & Wong, P. T. P. (2019). Development and preliminary validation of the Existential Gratitude Scale (EGS). Advance online publication. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2019.1656054
Wong, P. T. P. (2001). Tragic optimism, realistic pessimism, and mature happiness: An existential model. Presented at the Positive Psychology Summit, Washington, DC.
Wong, P. T. P. (2009). Viktor Frankl: Prophet of hope for the 21st century. In A. Batthyany. & J. Levinson (Eds.), Existential psychotherapy of meaning: A handbook of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (pp. 67-96). Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen.