Although gratitude is often the “forgotten factor” in happiness research, psychologists at UC Davis and the University of Miami are engaged in a long-term research project to help rediscover its importance.
UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons and University of Miami Professor Michael E. McCullough have shown that people who count their blessings — not just on the fourth Thursday of November, but in daily gratitude journals — exercise more regularly, complain of fewer illness symptoms and feel better about their lives overall.
Their research is designed to create and disseminate a large body of novel scientific data on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential consequences for human health and well-being.
“Scientists are latecomers to the concept of gratitude,” Emmons said. “Religions and philosophies have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue, and an integral component of health, wholeness, and well-being.”
Through conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences, Emmons and McCullough are shedding important scientific light on this important concept. This project is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Compared with those who dwell on daily hassles, people who take time instead to record their reasons for giving thanks also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful, enthusiastic and optimistic about their futures, while their family and friends report that they seem happier and are more pleasant to be around.
"Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people's lives," Emmons writes in his book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. The book outlines 10 strategies for cultivating a feeling of thanksgiving throughout the year.
Gratitude was unexplored terrain for psychologists when Emmons began studying it in 1998. His first research subjects were students in his health psychology class at UC Davis.
Then, the professor assigned some students to write down five things they were thankful for each day and others to record five complaints. Three weeks later, the grateful students reported measurable improvements in psychological, physical and social well-being compared with their complaining classmates.
Since then, Emmons has conducted variations of the experiment in dozens of other study populations, including organ transplant recipients, adults with chronic neuromuscular disease and healthy fifth-graders.
"We always find the same thing," he said. "People who keep gratitude journals improve their quality of life."
Emmons said his 10 strategies can help anyone cultivate a more grateful approach to life. But he warned that the exercises are not for the "intellectually lethargic." And he stressed that gratitude is incompatible with feelings of victimhood or entitlement, or with the inability to recognize one's shortcomings or to admit one is not self-sufficient.
"Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding," he said. "It requires contemplation, reflection and discipline. It can be hard and painful work."
Here are Emmons' evidence-based prescriptions for becoming more grateful:
- Keep a gratitude journal — Write down and record what you are grateful for, and then when you need to reaffirm your good lot in life, look back on the journal.
- Remember the bad — If you do not remind yourself of what it was like to be sick, unemployed or heartbroken, you will be less likely to appreciate health, your job or your relationship.
- Ask yourself three questions every evening — Fill in the blanks with the name of a person (or persons) in your life. What have I received from ___? What have I given to ___? What troubles and difficulty have I caused ___?
- Learn prayers of gratitude — One that Emmons suggests in his book from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: "Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky. I join my hands in thanks; for the many wonders of life; for having 24 brand-new hours before me."
- Appreciate your senses — One approach: Practice breathing exercises.
- Use visual reminders — For example, Emmons has a refrigerator magnet in his home bearing this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery. … Today is a gift."
- Make a vow to practice gratitude — "Swearing a vow to perform a behavior actually does increase the likelihood that the action will be executed," the psychologist said.
- Watch your language — It influences how you think about the world.
- Go through the motions — Research shows that emotions can follow behavior.
- Be creative — Look for new situations and opportunities in which to feel grateful, especially when things are not going well.
Though he practices these techniques, Emmons acknowledged that maintaining an attitude of thanksgiving is hard work even for him.
"Most psychologists study what they're bad at," he explained.
However, his long study of the subject has convinced him that Cicero had it right centuries ago. The Roman philosopher ranked gratitude as the chief virtue, parent of all the others.