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The science of gratitude



Washington Post
Friday, November 03, 2017

Every year, Americans set aside one day for gratitude. But why shouldn’t every day be Thanksgiving?

Not the part of the holiday that calls for gorging on turkey and pumpkin pie or lazing about with family and friends, but the part where people deliberately pause to reflect and count their blessings.

On most days, gratitude manifests as an emotional reaction to a favorable event or outcome. But it also can be a way of life. People who consciously choose daily to seek out things in their lives to be thankful for are, research has shown, happier and healthier.

In one 2003 study, gratitude experts Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami asked some participants to keep a record of what they were grateful for, while others were asked to list the hassles in their lives. After several weeks, those in the gratitude group had a more positive outlook on life, exercised more and reported fewer physical problems.

Emmons also has compiled a list of health data points from his and others’ studies on gratitude that show there are many emotional and physical health benefits of being consciously thankful. For example, practicing gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and led to a 7 percent reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure. There are studies that suggest gratitude led to reductions in depression and blood pressure and improvement in sleep quality among those with chronic pain and insomnia. In one study, 88 percent of suicidal patients reported feeling less hopeless after writing a letter of gratitude.

Although it’s busy season for a gratitude expert, Emmons, author of The Little Book of Gratitude, took the time to answer our questions by email about the practice of giving thanks and why we should be doing it year round.

How did you become interested in studying gratitude? Was it something that happened in your life that drew you to the subject?

Believe it or not, it was an assignment. Literally. I was invited to a scientific conference and told to become the expert on the scientific literature on gratitude. The problem was that there wasn’t any! In the science of human emotions, gratitude was the forgotten factor. So I seized this opportunity and began conducting research right away. This was the best assignment I was ever given! Also, I cannot not study gratitude. It’s a lens by which I view life.

How do you personally practice gratitude?

The best way I practice gratitude is to continually think about those people who have done things for me that I could never do for myself. Who is looking out for me, who has my back, who has made my life easier because of their sacrifices? Who and what do I take for granted? Then gratitude becomes, real, concrete, personal. We all have people like that in our lives. I make a mental list of these, and try to think about ways in which I can give back some of the goodness I have received. Basically, I try to practice being non-self-absorbed. Non-grateful people are self-absorbed. Grateful people are absorbed by the good that others are doing for them. Focus on the other - this is the best gratitude message we can give people.

Why is it so much easier to focus on what is wrong than it is to be thankful for what is right?

There is a negativity bias that is built into our brains, part of our factory-installed equipment, as I like to say. Although most people intuitively know that they should feel grateful when they have received a benefit from the hand of another and even function best when experiencing grateful emotions, why is it that they do not more consistently engage such states in their day-to-day lives? Why does genuine gratitude remain a transient and unpredictable occurrence for most people? Is it a limitation imposed by our neural architecture? This negativity bias that is built into our brains by evolution does not help. It leads us to either ignore or take for granted the blessings of life while we effortlessly harp on what irritates us.

Why should people extend the practice of giving thanks beyond the Thanksgiving table?

You are right. 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 and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. People who live under an “aura of pervasive thankfulness” reap the rewards of grateful living; conversely, those who fail to feel gratitude cheat themselves out of their experience of life. And why would we want to cheat ourselves?

This approach that needs to be cultivated, it’s not going to come easily or automatically. This is when gratitude displays its power and potential. This is when we need to press into our sources of gratitude more deeply - family, faith, freedom – all those circumstances, people, opportunities that we give thanks for each and every day, not just on the fourth Thursday of November.