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Thanks! The Science of Gratitude

Robert Emmons

An Interview with the "Gratitude Guy"

Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis
March 9, 2014

In his 1863 “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” Honest Abe Lincoln entreated a war-tired nation to acknowledge and say thanks for “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties,” Lincoln wrote,“which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.” Throughout the address, Lincoln is attuned to our inclination to forget, our habits of ungratefulness, and the wounds of war. Interesting that gratitude was paramount to his approach to healing and restoring a broken nation.

Because it turns out that gratitude can do just that: the subject of a host of psychological studies over the past two decades, simply saying thanks can really heal, restore, and make you happier. UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons has been at the forefront of this research, and we asked him about the science of gratitude. A hearty thanks to him for talking with us about thankfulness.

The Table: It’s so common to think of personal happiness as pre-determined, or at least uncontrollable. That can really contribute to the feeling of being “stuck.” Can we take our personal happiness into our own hands? Is our inner state of well-being something we can control? 

Emmons: Absolutely you can control your own happiness, or none of us “positive psychologists” would be doing what we do. While there is a set range for long-term happiness, there are a number of intentional activities and attitudes we can choose that can sustainably affect our happiness. We have more control over it than we might first believe. But this does not mean that change will come easily or automatically or without effort.

How do you measure human flourishing? And how do you show that gratitude is a factor in securing a good life?

I rely on tried and true measure of flourishing—happiness, pleasant emotions, purpose in life, low levels of unpleasant emotions. I also examine social indicators like friendship, generosity, feelings of closeness and connection. On the one hand, gratitude is a strategy to increase one’s level of sustainable happiness. People are consumed by the pursuit of happiness, and gratitude is a reliable pathway to increasing one’s joy. Gratitude is also a spiritual practice. Even in their busy, distracted lives, people want to connect with their spiritual side, and gratitude offers a way to do that, incorporating it into daily life. Whether we use controlled clinical trials or survey methods, the evidence is clear: Gratitude is good for us and for society.

What is gratitude anyway? Is it an emotion? A feeling? A mood? A virtue? An action? A prayer? What are we doing when we say “thanks”? What’s a good definition of “gratitude”?

It’s all of those and more. Gratitude is a morally complex disposition, and reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice. I like this definition: Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.

It’s common to think of gratitude as an obligation—something we owe to our benefactors—but you suggest that it’s more than just an obligation. Are you saying that gratitude works for our own self-interest and well-being? 

Certainly. Gratitude heals, energizes, and transforms lives in a myriad of ways consistent with the notion that virtue is both its own reward and produces other rewards. Gratitude takes us outside ourselves where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal. In this sense, gratitude, like other social emotions, functions to help regulate relationships, solidifying and strengthening them. Herein lies the energizing and motivating quality to gratitude. It is a positive state of mind that gives rise to the “passing on of the gift” through positive action. As such, gratitude serves as a key link in the dynamic between receiving and giving. It is not only a response to kindnesses received, but it is also a motivator of future benevolent actions on the part of the recipient. Serving these functions, gratitude enhances our own well-being in that we are built for relationships. Gratitude “reminds and binds” as one researcher pithily stated.

What if the gratitude feels empty? What if you don’t really feel thankful? How can you work toward genuine gratitude that will lead to personal flourishing?

So what? Express it anyway when it is the right thing to do. I have written about the strategy of “going through the motions.” Most people assume that emotions precede behavior. After all, we rarely do anything unless we first feel like doing it. But research on attitudes in social psychology has shown that attitude change effectively follows behavior change. That is why the simple act of saying thank you, writing a gratitude letter, or even keeping a gratitude journal can activate the feelings of gratefulness even if they were not initially present, or present in a lessened form. People will sometimes initially poo-poo the idea of trying out one of these practices, because in the absence of the attendant feeling state, the behaviors don’t feel right or authentic. But by living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live.

Is gratitude “built-in” to human nature? Are we naturally thankful? 

The capacity is there for sure. It is a universal (or at least cross-culturally recurring) response to goodness. Gratitude encircles much of what we do and who we are. Its power derives from a need that is deeply entrenched in the human condition—the need to give thanks.

I think there is the problem of goodness—the flip side to the problem of evil. How to account for beauty and goodness and kindness in the world and how to respond to this goodness. I believe that gratitude is the best approach to life. When life is going well, it allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. When life is going badly, it provides a perspective by which we can view life in its entirety.

You coach Little League and traveling baseball teams. Do you ever find yourself using the baseball diamond as a psych lab—a place to observe how certain emotions in children can lead to their well-being? Has working with children had an effect on your research interests, or your perspectives?

After coaching youth sports for nearly a decade, two observations really stand out. First, how parents respond to their kids performance, and second, the different ways that kids respond to adversity, and how it impacts their current and future performance. The two are clearly related. I see a lot of really respectful, grateful kids and that is rewarding. However, I see a lot of the opposite. Kids that are easily upset, disrespect their teammates, the game, the officials, even their coaches. When things don’t go their way, instead of taking responsibility, they play the blame game.

Almost every instance of unsportsmanlike conduct or other negative behaviors in players seems to be related to a similar cause. They invariably have critical, demanding parents (usually, but not always the dad) who put too much pressure on them to perform at a high level. They confuse effort with outcomes. They make their love and approval conditional on whether they succeed or fail. So I try to be mindful of the need to offer constant support when I am on the field with them. I don’t always succeed, but I’m improving. Working with the kids also teaches me to continue to give, even though my efforts may not always be met with gratitude on their part or their parents. Giving should not be conditional on expected gratitude, and this is a good laboratory for me to continue to learn this basic truth.

Some research has started to make a connection between gratitude and health benefits. Can saying thanks improve your physical health?

There is a new generation of gratitude researchers out there who are examining the health effects of gratitude. Some of the findings are really amazing. A host of new research studies are examining the effects of gratitude on health outcomes using state-of-the-art measures of biomarkers of health and aging. Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. It is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide. In the latest findings, gratitude has been shown to be associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), lower levels of both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (both at rest and in the face of stress) higher levels of heart rate variability (a marker of cardiac coherence), lower levels of creatinine (renal functioning), and lower levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of cardiac inflammation indicating heart disease). Grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol, and have higher rates of medication adherence. So, gratitude is good medicine! Given the ever-skyrocketing costs of health care this is all great news.

How do emotions, such as gratitude, factor in the integration of psychology and Christian spirituality? Is the psychology of gratitude consistent with a theology of gratitude?

The fit is a natural one. Or more appropriately, a supernatural one! Upon recognition of God’s outpourings of favor, humans are to respond appropriately with grateful affect, and gratitude is one of the most common emotions that Christianity seeks to evoke and sustain in believers. The Hebrew Bible is replete with the motif that man owes God gratitude for life, health, and sustenance. There are numerous “thanksgiving psalms” and other prayers in which the person or the community that is praying pours forth expressions of gratitude. In fact, there are no less than 150 verses in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that refer to the word “thanks” or its various cognates.

Do you think the fact that thankfulness can make us happier indicates anything about human nature or our relationship to God?

Yes, I think it indicates when we respond in accordance with who we were meant to be (i.e., grateful people), we experience more blessings and God’s favor which includes happiness and contentment. When we are grateful, we acknowledge that we have received a gift, I recognize the value of that gift, and I appreciate the intentions of the donor. We also recognize (perhaps less consciously) that we didn’t necessarily deserve or merit the benefit. When I am grateful I recognize that I have no claim on the gift or benefit I received; it was freely bestowed out of compassion, generosity, or love. When people have the attitude of gratitude, all of their life is perceived as a gift, freely given. Is this not amazing grace?

Gratitude finds wide expression throughout ancient writings and practices. What do you make of gratefulness being so central to human spirituality and religion?

So true. Virtually every religion has emphasized gratefulness or thanksgiving. It’s part of the ethical foundation of world religions that people are morally obligated to give thanks to their God and to each other. Religious traditions are able to so effectively cultivate gratitude—litanies of remembrance encourage gratitude, and religions do litanies very well. The scriptures, sayings, and sacraments of faith traditions inculcate gratefulness by drawing believers into a remembered relationship with a Supreme Being and with members of their faith community. This to me indicates that gratitude is something profoundly basic about the human condition. When we are grateful for something we consider its origins. Where did it come from, who was responsible for it, why and for what purpose does it exist, what should I do about it. These questions strike me as profoundly religious.

What are some specific practices you recommend to develop a more grateful outlook?

This is a vital question because gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline. This is the paradox of gratitude: while the evidence is clear that cultivating gratitude, in our life and in our attitude to life, allows us to flourish, it is difficult. Developing and sustaining a grateful outlook on life is easier said than done. A number of evidence based-strategies, including self-guided journaling, reflective thinking, letter writing, and gratitude visits have shown to be effective in creating sustainable gratefulness. Here are five good practices:

  1. Give away your gifts. How can I use my strengths and talents to help others? Paradoxically, we become more grateful when we become a giver rather than a receiver.
  2. Think about the bad. We associate gratitude with dwelling on the good, but recalling the worst times in our lives can be beneficial. To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. The realization that we made it through past tough times sets up a fertile contrast for present gratitude.
  3. Go through the motions. In your current life situation you may not feel grateful. But gratitude is an attitude, not a feeling that can be easily willed. If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. Grateful motions include smiling and saying thank you. By living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live.
  4. Traffic in the language of thankfulness. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance. Less grateful people are preoccupied with burdens, curses, deprivations, and complaints and their words reflect this negative focus.
  5. Overcome mental obstacles. Busyness, forgetfulness, taking things for granted, and a sense of entitlement all diminish possibilities for gratitude. Take life “as granted” rather than “for granted.” Instead of saying “I have to do this” try saying “I get to do this.” Sense that you are lucky or graced rather than deserving of good fortune. Take time to start a gratitude journal or develop other visual reminders of the benefits that surround you.

How have you incorporated gratitude into your own life? As a researcher with empirical proof that “gratitude works!” do you find yourself more aware of your inner state of thankfulness and happiness?

Yes, but that does not mean that it comes easily or naturally. I continue to research, write, and lecture on gratitude because I need to hear this message as often and as much as anyone. There is a lot of pressure when you claim to be an expert on a topic like gratitude, or optimism, or happiness, or forgiveness. Everyone is watching to see if you practice what you preach. But we are all flawed. When you study a virtue, you realize just how short you come up. You just try to keep moving forward and closer to the elusive goal.

It seems like the business-standard email sign-off is “Thanks.” How do you sign off your emails?

Sometimes “Grateful,” but usually “Gratefully yours,”…

Thankfulness is often treated in fine art, music, poetry, and literature with great depth. What artistic expressions of gratitude stand out most to you?

For me it’s music, especially worship music. Anything that reminds me of God’s amazing grace. Without an awareness of the need for grace we cannot be grateful. Gratitude involves seeing the good in our lives but also accepting or taking in the good. That’s where grace comes in. My next project is going to be on grace. I call it “Project Amazing Grace.” Stay tuned.

You’ve mentioned that you have a busy speaking schedule every year around Thanksgiving. What do you make of our nation’s almost liturgical approach to a day of gratitude? Is one day a year enough? What do you think about Thanksgiving?

In that it explicitly draws us to sources of gratitude, the holiday is unique. It is invaluable for that very reason. It is a great opportunity to staunch the flow of ingratitude that seems to come so easily or naturally in this day and age. We can recover a sense of the past and become more aware of what we have inherited individually and collectively. We often leave gratitude on the Thanksgiving table. That is most unfortunate—a wasted opportunity. I think that a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us down through the generations should be the focus of how Thanksgiving should be observed. This sort of transformational thinking can be revolutionary, and I think people will find it ultimately more satisfying and sustaining than the simple “count your blessings name them one by one” mentality that often passes for gratitude on this day. And this way of reflecting gratefully on the sacrifices of others can draw us out of our self-involved and self-contained worlds to a deeper awareness of those forces which make that very world possible in the first place.

Editor’s Note: To hear Dr. Emmons discuss these and similar issues in person, click here