Effect of gratitude on loneliness of Chinese college students: social support as a mediator

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Date: May 2015
Publisher: Scientific Journal Publishers, Ltd.
Document Type: Report
Length: 2,910 words
Lexile Measure: 1430L

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We investigated the mediating role of social support in the relationship between gratitude and loneliness. Participants were 728 Chinese students, from 6 universities, who completed 3 psychometric scales: the Gratitude Questionnaire-6, the UCLA Loneliness Scale (version 3), and the Social Support Rating Scale. Both gratitude and social support exerted protective effects against loneliness, and social support partially mediated the relationship between gratitude and loneliness. The practical implication of this research is that gratitude promotes social support and, thus, can protect individuals against loneliness.

Keywords: gratitude, loneliness, social support, college students.

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Loneliness is a prevalent form of emotional and social isolation that is not entirely understood (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Among students, loneliness is experienced, at least sometimes, by as many as 80% of them (Zhao, Kong, & Wang, 2012). Loneliness involves the individual's perception of social relationships being of an unsatisfactory quality or failing to meet one's expectations (Nicolaisen & Thorsen, 2014). As a negative and subjective emotion, loneliness typically manifests as spiritual emptiness, often accompanied by unhealthy emotions, such as dolefulness, helplessness, and depression, and, thus, significantly affects mental health. The main task of psychological development during the period of attending college is to obtain intimacy and avoid loneliness (Zhao et al., 2012). Therefore, it is significant to probe the factors that influence the loneliness experienced by students, as this research will serve as a basis for developing interventions to reduce loneliness (Ozben, 2013).

Gratitude is considered an affective trait, and is defined as a "general tendency to recognize and respond with grateful emotion to the roles of others' benevolence in the positive experiences and outcomes that one obtains" (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002, p. 112). In this regard, individuals who have a greater tendency toward being grateful are more likely to experience grateful moods and emotions in their social interactions than are those who have less tendency toward being grateful. There are few studies on the relationship between gratitude and loneliness, yet findings reported in previous studies indicate that gratitude and mental health are strongly correlated. Individuals accustomed to gratitude seldom experience negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety, and gratitude promotes health, adaptability, and development (Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts, 2003). According to the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, as a positive emotion, gratitude contributes to broadening cognitive schema, enhancing activity and flexibility, building psychological and social resources, and eliminating the negative effects brought about by negative emotions (Algoe & Fredrickson, 2011). The propositions put forward in this theory may explain a mechanism by which gratitude inhibits mental health problems. Thus, we argue that gratitude is an important factor influencing loneliness. However, there has been little research on how gratitude is linked to the experience of loneliness (Ozben, 2013).

In this study, we investigated the role of social support as a mediating variable in the relationship between gratitude and loneliness. Social support refers to the support and help one obtains through social interaction, which can alleviate psychological stress and enhance social adaptation, including perceived and enacted social support (Thoits, 2011). Social support is an important protective factor against loneliness and mental health problems. Findings reported in several studies have indicated that social support and loneliness are negatively correlated (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010; Kong, Zhao, & You, 2012). It has been found that social support significantly predicted loneliness, and that individuals with good social support did not feel as lonely (Nicolaisen & Thorsen, 2014) as those with little social support. In addition, gratitude contributes to developing social support. Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, and Joseph (2008) reported that gratitude helped individuals seek social support in risky situations, and Chen, Chen, and Tsai (2012) found that college students with a high degree of gratitude perceived more social support than did those with a low degree. According to stress theory, a stressor or social psychological stimulus affects physical and psychological health not only directly, but also indirectly through moderators or mediators such as social support (Segrin & Passalacqua, 2010; Thoits, 2011). Social support is generally considered a moderator in the relationship between personality and mental health.

Our aim was to examine the mediating role of social support in the relationship between gratitude and loneliness. This could contribute new information to existing research and provide empirical evidence that can be used to alleviate loneliness and enhance the mental health of college students. Our hypotheses were as follows:

Hypothesis 1: Gratitude will be negatively related to loneliness.

Hypothesis 2: Social support will mediate the relationship between gratitude and loneliness.



We recruited 728 college students (54% female, 46% male) to participate in this study. The average age was 20.2 years (SD = 3.1 years). Participants were from six universities in Guangdong Province and Shandong Province in the People's Republic of China, with 305 students from urban areas (41.9%) and 423 from rural areas (58.1%). Of the students, 351 were majoring in humanities and social sciences (48.2%), and 377 in science and engineering (51.8%).


Gratitude. We evaluated disposition toward gratitude using the Gratitude Questionnaire-6 (McCullough et al., 2002), which consists of six items. Each item is rated on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). A sample item is as follows: "Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful for something or to someone." The Gratitude Questionnaire-6 is widely used and well-validated in a Chinese population (Chen et al., 2012). In the present study, Cronbach's alpha was .85.

Loneliness. We evaluated loneliness using the UCLA Loneliness Scale (version 3; Russell, 1996). This scale consists of 20 items, each rated on a 4-point scale ranging from 1 (never) to 4 (always). A sample item is as follows: "How often do you feel alone?" The psychometric properties of the UCLA Loneliness Scale (version 3) have already been tested in a Chinese population (Lu et al., 2014). In the present study, Cronbach's alpha was .77.

Social support. We evaluated social support using the Social Support Rating Scale (Kong et al., 2012). The scale consists of 10 items that form three subscales: objective support, subjective support, and availability of support. In the present study, we revised some items to increase their relevance for college students, for example, the term colleagues was changed to classmates. Cronbach's alpha was .71.


We obtained permission to conduct the study from the Ethics Committee at Tsinghua University. During a lecture break, we distributed information about the study and consent forms to students who expressed an interest in participating. Those who signed the consent form were then asked to complete the three scales described above independently and objectively and also to supply demographic information. All participants completed the scales within 15 minutes. We received 728 fully completed survey forms, giving a response rate of 93%. Each participant received 10 RMB [yen] (US$1.60) as thanks for taking part in the study.

Data Analysis

We used SPSS version 16.0 software for data analysis, and the statistical methods included descriptive, correlation, and hierarchical regression analyses. To explore further the relationships among gratitude, social support, and loneliness, we used hierarchical regression analysis to test for the mediating effect of social support in the relationship between gratitude and loneliness, controlling for demographic variables of gender, area of origin (urban, rural), study major (humanities and social sciences, or science and engineering; MacKinnon, Fairchild, & Fritz, 2007).


Descriptive Statistics and Correlations

The descriptive statistics and correlations between the variables are shown in Table 1. All pairwise correlations among the three variables were significant. Gratitude and loneliness were negatively correlated, gratitude and social support were positively correlated, and social support and loneliness were negatively correlated.

Social Support as a Mediator in the Relationship Between Gratitude and Loneliness

After we controlled for gender, area of origin, and study major, gratitude significantly predicted loneliness and social support (see Table 2). After we controlled for social support in addition to gender, area of origin, and study major, gratitude still significantly predicted loneliness, but the predictive power decreased. The predictive effect of social support on loneliness was also significant.

In addition to the regression coefficient, we used the Sobel test to verify the mediating effect. According to the Sobel test,

z = a x b/[square root of ([b.sup.2] x [s.sup.2.sub.a] + [a.sup.2] x [s.sup.2.sub.b])]

where a is the unstandardized regression coefficient between the independent variable and the mediating variable, b is the unstandardized regression coefficient between the mediating variable and the dependent variable when taking the independent variable into consideration, and Sa and Sb are the standard errors of a and b, respectively. Based on the data presented in Table 2, z was -6.28 (p < .001), which also indicates that social support played a significant mediating role.

The indicator of the mediating effect was -.08 (calculated by multiplying a [.18] by b [-.44]). The indicator of the total effect was -.16, which is the regression coefficient of the independent variable (gratitude) to the dependent variable (loneliness). The proportion of mediating effect to total effect was, therefore, 50%, which means that the effect of gratitude on loneliness was partially mediated by social support. Therefore, our hypotheses were supported.


In the present research, we investigated the relationship between gratitude and loneliness, and the mediating and moderating roles of social support in this relationship. The results indicated that gratitude, social support, and loneliness were all correlated. Furthermore, the results of the hierarchical regression analysis showed that gratitude affected loneliness not only directly, but also indirectly through social support. It can be concluded that gratitude, as a positive emotion, not only buffers and inhibits the loneliness of college students directly, but also influences loneliness indirectly through the mediating effect of social support. This information could be used to design interventions that could assist in alleviating the loneliness of college students.

Direct Effect of Gratitude on Loneliness

Our findings indicate that gratitude had a negative effect on the loneliness experienced by college students. The more gratitude they felt, the less loneliness they experienced. McCullough et al. (2002) stated that gratitude represents emotional and spiritual health, and expressed the belief that gratitude is triggered by the process of individuals concentrating on their positive experiences and attributing these positive experiences to external factors, such as grace or help from others or society. Individuals who feel very grateful are inclined to perceive, and focus on, the positive stimuli in the surrounding environment, and have positive experiences that may inhibit their perception of loneliness, thus reducing their feelings of loneliness.

Mediating Effect of Social Support in the Relationship Between Gratitude and Loneliness

In the present research, we investigated the mediating effect of social support in the relationship between gratitude and loneliness, and generated some meaningful results. Both the direct effect of gratitude on loneliness and the indirect effect mediated by social support were equal, at the 50% level. Therefore, gratitude can affect loneliness directly, and can also exert an effect through the mediator of social support. When individuals feel gratitude to a high degree, they obtain more social support and, thus, feel less lonely than do those who feel less gratitude.

Findings reported in previous studies support our finding that gratitude positively affects social support. Wood et al. (2008) reported that feeling gratitude made individuals more likely to seek instrumental and emotional social support. Mofidi, El-Alayli, and Brown (2014) found that college students who had a high degree of gratitude perceived more social support than did those who were less grateful. According to the broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 2001), as a positive emotion, gratitude can enhance individual resources, such as health and social support, which illustrates that, because of a high level of interpersonal communication and social interaction, it is easier for high-gratitude individuals, compared to low-gratitude individuals, to obtain care, support, and help from outside (i.e., objective support), and to perceive and experience care and help (i.e., subjective support).

Many previous researchers have also found that social support and loneliness are negatively correlated, and that social support significantly predicts loneliness (Chen et al., 2012; Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Social support is an important factor affecting loneliness, and those who receive more psychological or social support than others do from their partner, friends, or family members feel less loneliness than do those receiving less support. In the buffering model of social support, it is held that social support is linked to physical and psychological health under stressful conditions, and that social support buffers the negative effects of stress events on physical and psychological status, and maintains or promotes an individual's physical and psychological health.

It is, therefore, well-documented that social support can reduce loneliness. However, in addition to the direct link between gratitude and loneliness, our results indicated that there is another mechanism operating, namely, a relationship linking gratitude, social support, and loneliness, and that high-gratitude individuals feel less loneliness than do low-gratitude individuals because high-gratitude individuals have more emotional and social support than their low-gratitude peers do.


There are two limitations to this study that should be noted. First, our outcome variables were measured by self-report, which may cause systemic measurement errors. To diminish the risk of common method bias, future researchers should use a longitudinal design. A second limitation is that our analysis was focused on only one group of individuals, i.e., Chinese students from six universities. We argue that our results can be extended to college students in other countries or areas; however, whether or not this is so, remains to be tested in future research.


We conclude that gratitude and social support both exert protective effects against loneliness in college students. Gratitude affects loneliness not only directly, but also indirectly through social support, with the two routes having an equal mediating effect. We have proposed that strengthening gratitude would help cultivate social support for college students and this would assist in protecting them against loneliness.



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Tsinghua University


Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics

Shiguang Ni and Ruidong Yang, Graduate School at Shenzhen, Tsinghua University; Yufeng Zhang, Department of Psychology, Tsinghua University; Rui Dong, School of Business Administration, Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics.

This research was funded by the Youth Foundation of the Graduate School at Shenzhen of Tsinghua University (20135720198).

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Yufeng Zhang, Department of Psychology, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, People's Republic of China. Email: zhangyfth03@163.com; or to Rui Dong, School of Business Administration, Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province 310018, People's Republic of China. Email: dongrui-999@163.com

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics and Correlations Among Variables

                 M       SD     Gratitude   Loneliness   Social

Gratitude        29.35   2.71   1.00
Loneliness       45.05   4.39    .29 ***    1.00
Social support   33.81   4.47    .38 ***     .40 ***     1.00

Note. N = 728; *** p < .001.

Table 2. Mediating Effect of Social Support in the Relationship
Between Gratitude and Loneliness

                 First step: loneliness

                 B           SE          [beta]

Gender             .40         .66         .04
Origin             .25         .49         .03
Major              .38         .52         .04
Gratitude         -.16         .03        -.27 ***
Social support
[R.sup.2]          .08         .17         .18
F                11.32 ***   26.26 ***   23.11 ***

                 Second step: social support    Third step: loneliness

                 B         SE        [beta]     B      SE    [beta]

Gender           -.91      .52       -.09       -.01   .65    .00
Origin           -.18      .38       -.01        .16   .45    .01
Major            -.98      .41       -.11 *     -.03   .51   -.00
Gratitude         .18      .02        .38 ***   -.08   .03   -.14 **
Social support                                  -.44   .05   -.35 ***

Note. * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A419268198