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Gratitude project aims to promote mental wellbeing post pandemic

Woman with arms outstretched standing amongst trees

Clapping for the NHS revealed the desire to express gratitude during the pandemic, and now researchers have created a virtual tool to enable people to say thank you more easily.

Launched as England’s COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are lifting, the Gratitude Tree is a website where anyone can plant a virtual tree for any groups or themes - like thanking the NHS or their colleagues - and then add virtual leaves to the “tree” with their expression of thanks.

It was developed by researchers involved in the Citizen Forensics project based at The Open University, Lancaster University, and Lero - the Irish Software Research Centre - and is part of the £1M Citizen Forensics project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The Citizen Forensics team are investigating how digital technologies impact on, and have the potential to enhance, citizen collaboration with authorities (including the police) to solve problems that are relevant to a community.

Dr Zoë Walkington, OU Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Counselling and a member of the Citizen Forensics project said: “Clapping for the NHS earlier in the pandemic showed how people like to express their gratitude so this is an opportunity for people to share, and read messages of gratitude from others relating to COVID-19 - or indeed anything else. Our digital gratitude tree is a way to keep that spirit going.”

The project site highlights published research which suggests that gratitude is associated not only with better psychological wellbeing but even better physical health. In addition, both receiving and giving thanks have been shown to contribute towards positive emotions.

Professor Mark Levine of Lancaster University said: “After seeing expressions of thanks and gratitude on social and mainstream media during the pandemic, we wanted to find new ways of harnessing the power of thanking others.”

Professor Arosha Bandara from The Open University, who leads the project, explains: “Our research into Citizen Forensics had started well before the pandemic and made us aware of the importance of online communities, but when the pandemic started this was felt all the more keenly. We therefore had the idea of developing a central place in which people could publicly share thanks with their communities.”

Contributions to the site will be anonymous and will not be analysed by the academics, but visitors to the site will be given an opportunity to take part in other related research projects.

One leaf planted on the tree expresses gratitude for the staff at the Princess Royal University Hospital, for their “incredible care and compassion” while another reads “We are feeling sad, lucky and all kinds of weird in equal measure. But I think there is an awful lot to be grateful for”.

The ultimate aim of the project is for the forest to grow and enable people all over the world to plant their own trees and thank their own contacts. The academics want people to interact with the tree, to use it to develop new trees for groups they want to thank and to add new leaves to existing trees.

Plant a Gratitude Tree

Find out more about OU research in Citizen Forensics Read more about COVID-19 Research

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