The Psychology of Gratitude: Robert Emmons on How Saying Thanks Makes You Happier
Gratitude is deeply woven into the Christian way. Believers and non-believers alike, representing many wisdom traditions, have all long practiced the act of giving thanks. Our station in life is one of utter dependence, gift, and grace. So thankfulness is fitting and right. But gratitude has deep and often instantaneous impact. Just look at the celebrity stars Fred Rogers has weeping after 10 seconds of grateful silence. It’s easy to forget the utter simplicity of being from the perspective of gratitude, especially with all those irresistible Black Friday deals in your inbox (thanks for clicking this email instead). May you live in the lightness of God’s grace this week, and enjoy this little reflection on the impact gratitude has on well-being, struggle, meaning, and the human good. This Season 2 bonus episode features UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading researchers of Gratitude, on the power of saying thanks. From our Table to yours, Happy Thanksgiving from those of us at CCT.
- 0:00 – Podcast introduction
- 4:42 – Begin interview: Robert Emmon’s work on studying happy people and gratitude
- 11:30 – Intermission
- 12:50 – Resume interview: The role of empirical evidence and giving advice in our self-help and productivity driven culture.
- 16:22 – Gratitude in the context of suffering
- 22:14 – How gratitude shapes our identity and makes meaning in life
- 25:45 – End interview, credits
Quotes from Robert Emmons
- “When I see life as full of gifts and I’m a receiver—our entire life life is one big gift—it enables me to organize my experience. Seeing myself as the recipient of giftedness as well as a potential giver of my own gifts onto other people—that constitutes my identity: a recipient as well as a giver of grace.”
- “A happy person, a person who is fulfilled, deeply so, is one who is grateful.”
- “What I found the most amazing is how I’ve been able to connect with people over this concept of gratitude. It’s been said that gratitude is the ‘remind’ and ‘bind’ emotion that reminds you who have done things for you. It binds them, connects them to you and you to them.”
- Produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought
- Sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Laura Crane
- Theme music by The Brilliance
- Edited by a Turkey named Stewart
- Sound FX by Mashed Potatoes
- Additional scoring provided by a Bowl of Gravy
- Production assistance by Stuffing, with some additional tape edits by Cranberry Sauce
- Follow Evan Rosa on Twitter @EvanSubRosa
- Follow the Center for Christian Thought on Twitter @BiolaCCT
- Visit our website cct.biola.edu
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Robert Emmons: When I see life as full of gifts and I’m a receiver—our entire life life is one big gift—it enables me to organize my experience. Seeing myself as the recipient of giftedness as well as a potential giver of my own gifts onto other people—that constitutes my identity: a recipient as well as a giver of grace.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa. You’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
It’s gratitude week. Happy Thanksgiving. We’re taking a break from regularly scheduled programming to run a show we did a few years back on the psychology of gratitude, featuring Mr. Gratitude himself, a man who’s November is his busiest month, Dr. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading experts in the psychology of gratitude.
Here at the beginning of the show I challenge you, right now to pause.
Evan: Take a deep breath, sit back, and think of three things you’re grateful for. Go ahead. Right now. It might be the smell of coffee in your hand, a recent promotion, a friend who stuck with you through hard times. Express your gratitude for these things to yourself, to God.
It’s even psychologically proven that if you write it down or read a thank‑you‑note to your friend in person, you’ll be even happier. There’s much more to say about gratitude. Here’s one from me. Thank you for listening. It’s an honor to bring these interviews, ideas, stories, dumb dad jokes, pop culture references to you each week. Sincerely, thank you for listening.
If you haven’t subscribed yet, what are you doing? Search The Table Audio in any podcast app and click subscribe. We publish new episodes every Monday. Well, I feel better already. Here’s the show.
Evan: This is not a public service announcement lamenting the loss of Thanksgiving. No‑one is here to judge you for playing Christmas music too early. It’s not a rant about consumerism or the pagan takeover of Christian American holidays.
This is just a deeper look at gratitude. Something to consider while you deep‑fried turducken cooks, and perhaps something that’s far more important to start doing the day after Thanksgiving, and every day after that.
You see, as psychologist, Robert Emmons suggest can change your life. The practice of saying thanks and being aware of the gifts in your life, seeing life as gift is something that can induce deep and lasting psychological and spiritual change. In a word, saying thanks helps you thrive. I’m Evan Rosa. Welcome to The Table.
While the early roots of psychology focused on the negative aspects of human life, treating pain and pathology, and things that have gone wrong with the human mind, recent trends in positive psychology focus on the practices and habits that can make someone’s life better.
Just one of the areas of research that they dove into was the phenomenon of gratitude. The philosophers and theologians had been thinking about gratitude for thousands and thousands of years. This was the first attempt to empirically study the effects of saying thank you. I want to introduce you to Robert Emmons.
Robert: I’m a professor of psychology at UC Davis.
Evan: One of the world’s leading researchers on the psychology of gratitude. Needless to say, he’s pretty busy this month.
Robert: On the weekends I chase a golf ball around if I’m not chasing my kids around. [laughs]
Evan: When Bob was in graduate school working on personality psychology, he was working on how people flourish ‑‑ what are the factors that contribute to it? Why did those make a difference ‑‑ when he stumbled on a gap in the research.
Robert: I was researching the concept of happiness back in graduate school. We didn’t call it happiness back then, because happiness didn’t have a very scientific‑sounding name to it. We instead preferred to use the name subjective well‑being, which sounds a lot more scientific, have a lot more credibility.
We’re interested in looking at the characteristics of happy people. Who is happy? Why are they happy? What are the predictors that distinguishes between the most happy from the least happy individual?
It turned out there were really only three or four factors that seemed to make the most difference. The first was social relationships. People who have close, warm, supportive relationships, that’s by far the number one predictor of happiness.
Number two is having a sense of purpose, having a sense of working toward meaningful goals that you perceive as valuable, meaningful, giving you a sense of purpose. You’re trying to accomplish something outside of yourself.
The third category ‑‑ this is where gratitude comes in ‑‑ is attitudes. Personality traits that are related to really attitudinal approaches to life, things like optimism or pessimism, trust or mistrust as basic dimensions.
Gratitude was one, which from the perspective of history was an important one, that philosophers, theologians, religious traditions all said that a happy person, a person who is fulfilled, deeply so, is one who is grateful.
There was no research on this topic. I thought that is a huge gap here between what people are saying is important, historically, and contemporary research. I was trying to do something about that huge gap.
Evan: Even the fact that you were focusing on positivity, happiness, positive affections, positive emotions, that was a shift.
Robert: That’s true. We all knew about the terrible Ds ‑‑ divorce, dysfunction, depression, distress, despair, disappointment, death, all the terrible Ds. We knew relatively little about positive human functioning, including things like happiness, optimism, well‑being, satisfaction with life.
Evan: Why do you think psychology started that way, looking at all the negative aspects of human life and not the positive?
Robert: Psychology mold itself after the medical sciences, which were by definition disease‑focused and used a medical model of finding what’s wrong with people and trying to fix what’s wrong, instead of focus more on prevention, future problems, or the correction or remediation of those or building in strengths that would make people more resistant or resilient to those problems down the road.
There was just more urgency. Negative things have more urgency. If you are wounded, cut, or in an accident you’ve got to stop the bleeding first before you can worry about becoming better, stronger, or getting back health. There is a certain urgency to the negative. It makes sense why [inaudible 7:39] would be there for so long.
Evan: One way to characterize the work of a positive psychology is taking a look at old ideas, ideas that have stood the test of time, and then taking a new perspective on them. Testing them in a new way.
Of course, there’s a reason that they’re lasting. It’s interesting to take a scientific perspective, an empirical perspective on these ideas, these traditions, these practices. Emmons, like so many other Christian psychologists takes his religious perspectives and his science seriously.
His perspective on his research is marked by the humility toward the tools of modern psychological science. There’s real value that that science provides. That there’s an openness toward receiving the wisdom of the past.
Robert: It’s really fascinating that, nowadays, we can use the tools of modern science to shed some light on issues that have been around for a long time. Scientists, especially psychologists are relative newcomers when it comes to exploring some of these topics.
We can make some advances. In some respects, it’s hard to improve on the wisdom of these traditions that have been around for so long. There’s so much richness in there. We’d always appreciate that, because we have a tendency to want to rush out there with our methods because we’re so good at that. That’s what we do. It’s what we’re trained to do.
Sometimes, we need to stop and step back a little bit and reflect on what it is what we’re doing or asking people to do with some of these techniques and interventions that we’re creating.
Evan: There seems to be an interest in scientifically validating all the ideas. We want to hear that gratitude actually works, and science proves it. We have a desire to see things validated.
Robert: Very much a show‑me attitude. People want to be convinced. They want to see the numbers, even if something is in their philosophical tradition or religious teaching, it’s something they know about until you put data to it. It’s somehow seen as not quite as real, or not quite as valid, or credible.
We’re just skeptical by nature. We’re empirically focused. We want to see the results before we sign up. I like to think my empirical work is informed by my reflections rooted in theology and how I think about the nature of God, the issue of humanity and how we should relate to God.
Certainly, I wouldn’t study these topics if it weren’t for my faith. It just gives me that motivation that tells me these are important topics. These are how we relate to God and how we relate to each other. That makes them critical for understanding human functioning, particularly in the realm of well‑being.
My feel, originally, was personality psychology…I was trained as a personality psychologist. In personality psychology, we’re trying to account for the whole person. Other fields of psychology are little parts of the person, fragments of the individual.
Personality psychology is about the whole person, the whole individual and his or her social context. I thought it was so ironic that here we are claiming, reporting to study the whole person.
In fact, for the majority of people in the research aspect of personality psychology were ignoring what for many people is the most important part of who they are, their spiritual side, their religious dimension of personality.
This is not right. How can we claim to do this and be so hypocritical, say this is what’s important to people? We’re making up all these concepts and deciding for people what should be important for them. Let’s ask them. Let’s look to see what they consider to be important aspects of their lives.
It turns out that if we ignore, and I thought this was the case, if we ignore from what many people is the most important part of who they are, it really won’t matter what they study, what we study because we’re leaving out the most important ingredient.
Evan: Stay tuned. More from Robert Emmons after this brief message.
Evan: Friends, thanks for listening to The Table Audio this holiday season. While the end of season two is approaching, we’ll have several special bonus episodes lined up in December on Advent, Christmas, and more. Season three is already in the cutting room as we speak. I can’t wait to share all these upcoming interviews with you.
This podcast is actually just one of the many resources through Biola University Center for Christian Thought. We also have a big library of event videos, including a talk from this episode’s guest, Robert Emmons. In fact, it’s our single, most popular video ever, this lecture from 2014 entitled “Gratitude Works”. Yes, it does.
If you’re hungry for more psychology of gratitude, that event video is your ticket. Of course, we have many more lectures, seminars, video interviews, and clips available on our website and YouTube channel.
Really, the best way to get into that content is to subscribe to our email list. It’s free. We send regular emails with no spam. Just the goodies that you sign up for anyway. Really thoughtful Christian scholars offering valuable insights about life’s biggest questions.
Head over to the home page, cct.biola.edu, and sign up for The Table and add some wisdom to your inbox. Now, back to the show.
Just like the self‑help movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s, perhaps you’ve noticed recently that we still talk about productivity. We still care about the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Evan: We love lists, formulas, and programs. There’s no scarcity of people who regularly tell you exactly what you need to do to be happy right now.
Evan: There are plenty of good things out there. That raises the question of how do you sort the good vice…
Evan: …from the bad?
Evan: This is where the empirical nature of psychologists’ work comes in. They test out interventions. An intervention is just a method to help you change, to help modify your behavior or your emotional state.
Robert Emmons’ studies empirically validated practices that have proven to increase well‑being and happiness in the individuals that test them out.
Robert: We need the evidence‑based practices because there’s no shortages of ideas out there. How do we set ourselves apart as research part of the psychologist from the volumes and volumes of books out there that offer advice, techniques, and ways to improve one’s life, to live your best life now?
You need to remind yourself I am ready for and equal to anything that comes my way. I am full of can‑do power.
Robert: Whatever you want, whatever domain of life you’re interested in changing, relationships, health, work habits, physical health, mental health, there’s advice out there. Some of them is very good.
Robert: Some of them is not.
Robert: How is the consumer suppose to discern what’s useful and what’s not? We need to have some sort of empirical evidence for that. That’s what motivated me with the gratitude work I’ve done with the journaling, actually trying to demonstrate, not whether gratitude works or not or journaling works or not, but the ways in which it does, and how does it work, for whom, and under what conditions?
We’re getting more and more nuanced information that can be useful for people as they make decisions about how to try to incorporate more gratitude in their lives.
Evan: What are some of the more spiritual disciplines related to gratitude that have been empirically proven in your psychological studies?
Robert: In Gratitude Works I write about fasting as one way of activating. I have a little chapter on spiritual practices that are not normally associated with gratitude. We all know prayer is obviously, worship, and these other things, journaling.
Things like solitude, quiet time, simplicity. Then, fasting is one of those. These can all be routes for developing a deeper sense of faithfulness. Fasting is a great example. It shows us how dependent we are upon food to sustain us, and how do we handle those feelings of hunger.
During the fast, we become more dependent on God. We’re suppose to fill our time with thoughts of God. How can that not deepen us and [inaudible 16:04] us to effect on our creatureliness and our dependence on God? It’s got to make us more grateful.
Evan: In this context, it’s hard to avoid thinking about situations of suffering, in cases of trauma, in cases of severe pain, psychological, physical suffering. In the midst of that, how does one institute gratitude practices that can help them to cope, that can help them to become more resilient?
Robert: Gratitude is needed more than ever in those situations of course. There’s a very deep and robust literature on people handling traumatic events by writing about those events, by writing narrative of counts of their thoughts and feelings over something very bad that’s happening to them or has happened before in their lives.
This may be very private. It’s stuff they never really talked about or shared before for various reasons. They find a whole host of benefits when people can confide in others, through others, or in writing about these events.
It’s not much of a leap to go from that kind of writing and processing of traumatic events to actually processing these events gratefully. That might be one frame of reference a person uses when they write about the worst thing that ever happened to them, some loss, some betrayal, some separation, some [inaudible 17:37] , some job loss, physical illness, death, disability, whatever it is.
If people can write from a redemptive frame of reference, invest people to do that in studies. Let’s write about this event. How have you grown from it? What benefits emerged as an aftermath of you handling this event? A bunch of probes like that, designed to activate more grateful processing.
They do show benefits compared to various controlled conditions. One can go from traumatic events to processing those gratefully without ignoring the negative but helping the person transform and see them in terms of new possibilities.
Gratitude is a great illustration. That’s where the two poles come together. That in gratitude is the recognition of some sort of loss, adversity, or suffering. There’s a comparison between what once was and what now is or between what now is or what might be.
You have this juxtaposition of adversity and delight or suffering and joy. I think why gratitude has such a power is because where these things come together. Gratitude is always with respect to some previous suffering or adversity that’s not been transcended.
The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock and what they have gone through. How many of those families have lost people in the first winter. Buried them [inaudible 18:58] family very relatively the first winter. It was the joy that came in the morning afterward, made possible by the suffering that happened before made the gratitude so much deeper and intensified.
There’s this link that I think is essential in understanding gratitude to nature. It’s not just purely positive, but it has it’s power within this context of a redemptive twist on previous suffering and adversity.
Evan: At times, there’s a tension that we can feel when we do notice a thankful spirit regarding some negative past events. Some awful occurrence that we end up being thankful for because of the outcomes that are produced. Can you speak to that tension and the internal, maybe the feelings of guilt even for being thankful for some horrible event?
Robert: It’s very important there to make the distinction between being thankful because of that or for that, as opposed to what happened because of that, changes that occurred because of that.
Nobody, of course, wants these things to happen. We don’t want our kids to get sick and die. We don’t want economic collapse. We don’t want natural disasters. The questions becomes, what do we do know because of that? How are we going to let that affect us?
We can be grateful for what strengths develop out of that or maybe new opportunities that emerge when we lost a job. That’s where you see the gratitude having it’s big impact there. It’s because of what now became possible because of that.
Of course, it will take some time to get there. It’s not an immediate or automatic reaction that people have in the face of trauma or suffering.
Evan: Some scholars suggest that one of the first Christian psychologists was Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher. In one of his prayers, which can be found in a little book called “The Prayers of Kierkegaard”, he says, “We would receive all at Thy hand. If it should be honor and glory, we would receive them at Thy hand. If it should be ridicule and insults, we would receive them at Thy hand.
“Oh, let us be able to receive either the one or the other of these things with equal joy and gratitude. There’s little difference between them. And for us, there would be no difference if we thought only of the one decisive thing, that it comes from Thee.”
From philosopher, Robert C. Roberts, who’s done a great deal of moral psychology, the psychological aspects of philosophy, the philosophical aspects of psychology interprets Kierkegaard there saying that, “Kierkegaard is praying to become constitutionally grateful, the kind of gratitude found deep in a person’s character, the kind of trait that is lasting and strong.
“So that when the storms come, and of course they will, the well‑formed Christian is marked by a gratitude that transcends and levels the circumstances of his or her life.”
Bob, you’ve written this, “The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, suggested that in thankfulness, a person’s relationship to God and others gives birth to a self‑awareness that constitute his being.”
Experiences and expressions of gratitude, they shape who we are. They shape our identity and our beings. That seems to pick up a very unique aspect of gratitude. What does that mean? How can that help here?
Robert: It really is a way of constructing meaning, making meaning in life. When I see life as full of gifts and I’m a receiver or the basic aspect of life is being a sense of profound giftedness, our entire life is one big gift—that puts so much else into perspective.
It enables me to organize my experience, and seeing myself as the recipient of giftedness as well as a potential giver of my own gifts onto other people—that constitutes my identity. A recipient as well as a giver of grace. It just becomes an essential narrative theme.
It can be an essential narrative theme in people’s lives, especially as we search for meaning or piece together meaning from little activities, events, and everyday goals. Most people move from activity to activity, choice to choice without an overarching sense of meaning.
Robert: Gratitude is something that can lend an overall sense of meaning to everyday activities, events, relationships. Some of its strengths comes back from that.
Evan: Sometimes, practicing gratitude is just telling your story. When you tell stories, you’re connecting. You’re connecting the neurons in your brain. You’re connecting to other people. You’re connecting to God.
A practice of gratitude facilitates that. Reminding us of the gifts in life and binding us to others.
Robert: When I talk to people about gratitude or tell people that I study gratitude, the reaction I get is just so overwhelmingly positive and affirming. It’s like, “It’s about time someone’s done this.” Or they’ll talk about personal experiences they found very powerful or transformational.
Everybody has a story to tell about gratitude. In that sense, it’s probably like trauma or forgiveness or something that really speaks to people’s hearts. They want to communicate that, so they’re appreciative of that opportunity to do so.
That’s what I found the most amazing is how I’ve been able to connect with people over this concept of gratitude. In that sense, I really think it has this…It’s been said that gratitude is the remind and bind emotion that reminds you who have done things for you. It binds them, connects them to you and you to them.
It is just talking about gratitude has such a profoundly interpersonal attraction to it. I just found that so amazing, stories that people tell. It has this magnetic residence to it that I haven’t found another topic I’ve studied in even things like happiness.
I know people like happiness, but it doesn’t have the same ability to inspire them and energize them like gratitude does.
Evan: Robert Emmons is professor of psychology at University of California, Davis. He’s the author of several books and articles related to positive psychology and gratitude research, including most recently, Gratitude Works, a 21‑day program for creating emotional prosperity.
You can find more from Robert Emmons, as well as plenty more on the psychology of gratitude at the Center for Christian Thought’s website at cct.biola.edu. The Table is a production of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is supported by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Thanks for listening. Happy Thanksgiving. Not just in November…
Evan: …but every day.
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation. Theme music is by The Brilliance.
This episode was edited by a turkey named Stewart, sound effects by mashed potatoes, additional scoring provided by a bowl of gravy, production assistance by stuffing, some additional tape edits by a cranberry sauce.
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