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Enhance Happiness and Health by Cultivating Gratitude: Interview with Robert Emmons

Robert Emmons Thanks(Dear reader: Here you have a lit­tle gift to con­tinue the Thanks­giv­ing spirit. Enjoy the inter­view, and thank you for vis­it­ing our site.)

Prof. Robert Emmons stud­ies grat­i­tude for a liv­ing as Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at UC Davis and is Editor-In-Chief of the Jour­nal of Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy. He has just pub­lished Thanks: How the New Sci­ence of Grat­i­tude Can Make You Hap­pier, an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary book that pro­vides a research-based syn­the­sis of the topic as well as prac­ti­cal suggestions.

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez: Wel­come. Prof. Emmons, could you please pro­vide us an overview of the Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy field so we under­stand the con­text for your research?

Robert Emmons: Sure. Mar­tin Selig­man and col­leagues launched what was called “pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy in the late 90s as an anti­dote to the tra­di­tional nearly exclu­sive empha­sis of “neg­a­tive psy­chol­ogy” focused on fix­ing prob­lems like trauma, addic­tion, and stress. We want to bal­ance our focus and be able to help every­one, includ­ing high-functioning indi­vid­u­als. A num­ber of researchers were inves­ti­gat­ing the field since the late 80s, but Selig­man pro­vided a new umbrella, a new cat­e­gory, with cred­i­bil­ity, orga­nized net­works and fund­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the whole field.

And where does your own research fit into this over­all picture?

I have been research­ing grat­i­tude for almost 10 years. Grat­i­tude is a pos­i­tive emo­tion that has tra­di­tion­ally been the realm of human­ists and philoso­phers, and only recently the sub­ject of a more sci­en­tific approach. We study grat­i­tude not as a merely aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­pline, but as a prac­ti­cal frame­work to bet­ter func­tion­ing in life by tak­ing con­trol of hap­pi­ness lev­els and prac­tic­ing the skill of emo­tional self-regulation.

What are the 3 key mes­sages that you would like read­ers to take away from your book?

First, the prac­tice of grat­i­tude can increase hap­pi­ness lev­els by around 25%. Sec­ond, this is not hard to achieve — a few hours writ­ing a grat­i­tude jour­nal over 3 weeks can cre­ate an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, that cul­ti­vat­ing grat­i­tude brings other health effects, such as longer and bet­ter qual­ity sleep time.

What are some ways to prac­tice grat­i­tude, and what ben­e­fits could we expect? Please refer to your 2003 paper in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and Social Psy­chol­ogy, where I found fas­ci­nat­ing quotes such as that “The abil­ity to notice, appre­ci­ate, and sav­ior the ele­ments of one life has been viewed as a cru­cial ele­ment of well-being.

The most com­mon method we use in our research is to ask peo­ple to keep a “Grat­i­tude Jour­nal”  where you write some­thing you feel grate­ful for. Doing so 4 times a week, for as lit­tle as 3 weeks, is often enough to cre­ate a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence in one level of hap­pi­ness. Another exer­cise is to write a “Grat­i­tude Let­ter” to a per­son who has exerted a pos­i­tive influ­ence on one’s life but whom we have not prop­erly thanked in the past, and then to meet that per­son and read the let­ter to them face to face.

The ben­e­fits seem to be very sim­i­lar using both meth­ods in terms of enhanced hap­pi­ness, health and well­be­ing. Most of the out­comes are self-reported, but there is an increas­ing empha­sis on mea­sur­ing objec­tive data such as cor­ti­sol and stress lev­els, heart rate vari­abil­ity, and even brain acti­va­tion pat­terns. The work of Richard David­son is exem­plary in that respect, show­ing how mind­ful­ness prac­tice can rewire some acti­va­tion pat­terns in the frontal lobes.

Now, let me give an overview of the paper you men­tion, titled Count­ing Bless­ings ver­sus Bur­dens: An Exper­i­men­tal Inves­ti­ga­tion of Grat­i­tude and Sub­jec­tive Well-Being in Daily Life (note: ref­er­ence below). The paper includes 3 sep­a­rate stud­ies, so I will just be able to pro­vide a quick glimpse. More than a hun­dred adults were all asked to keep a jour­nal, and were ran­domly assigned to 3 dif­fer­ent groups. Group A had to write about things they felt grate­ful about. Group B about things they found annoy­ing, irri­tat­ing. Group C about things that had had a major impact on them. 2 out of the 3 dif­fer­ent exper­i­ments were rel­a­tively intense and short term (keep­ing a daily jour­nal for 2–3 weeks), while one required a weekly entry dur­ing 10 weeks.

Across the 3 dif­fer­ent stud­ies we found that peo­ple in the grat­i­tude group gen­er­ally evi­denced higher-levels of well-being than those in the com­par­i­son con­di­tions, espe­cially when com­pared to Group B (the one jour­nal­ing about has­sles), but also com­pared to the “neu­tral” group.

In the longer study, which ran for 10 weeks, we also saw a pos­i­tive effect on hours of sleep and on time spent exer­cis­ing, on more opti­mistic expec­ta­tions for the com­ing week, and fewer reported phys­i­cal symp­toms, such as pain. Addi­tion­ally, we observed an increase in reported con­nect­ed­ness to other peo­ple and in like­li­hood of help­ing another per­son deal with a per­sonal problem.

We could then say that we can train our­selves to develop a more grate­ful atti­tude and opti­mistic out­look in life, result­ing in well-being and health improve­ments, and even in becom­ing better-not just hap­pier– cit­i­zens. And prob­a­bly one can expect few neg­a­tive side effects from keep­ing a grat­i­tude jour­nal. What do you think pre­vents more peo­ple from ben­e­fit­ing from these research findings?

Great ques­tion, I reflect often on that. My sense is that some peo­ple feel uncom­fort­able talk­ing about these top­ics, since they may sound too spir­i­tual, or reli­gious. Oth­ers sim­ply don’t want to feel oblig­ated to the per­son who helped them, and never come to real­ize the boost in energy, enthu­si­asm, and social ben­e­fits that come from a more grate­ful, con­nected life.

Judith Beck talked to us recently (inter­view notes here) about her work help­ing dieters learn impor­tant men­tal skills through cog­ni­tive ther­apy tech­niques. You talk about grat­i­tude. Other pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gists focus on For­give­ness. How can we know which of these tech­niques may be help­ful for us?

The key is to reflect on ones goal and cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. For exam­ple, the prac­tice of for­give­ness can be most appro­pri­ate for peo­ple who have high lev­els of anger and resent­ment. Cog­ni­tive ther­apy has been shown to be very effec­tive against depres­sion. In a sense both groups are try­ing to elim­i­nate the neg­a­tive. Grat­i­tude is dif­fer­ent in that it is bet­ter suited for highly func­tion­ing indi­vid­u­als who sim­ply want to feel bet­ter — enhanc­ing the positive.

Prof. Emmons, thank you for your time, and research.

You are welcome.


Related read­ing

- Book: Thanks: How the New Sci­ence of Grat­i­tude Can Make You Happier

- Emmons, R. A. & McCul­lough, M. E. (2003). Count­ing bless­ings ver­sus bur­dens: An exper­i­men­tal inves­ti­ga­tion of grat­i­tude and sub­jec­tive well-being in daily life. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and Social Psy­chol­ogy, 84, 377–389

- Excel­lent blog post ana­lyz­ing that study

- Other inter­views in our Neu­ro­science and Psy­chol­ogy Inter­view Series

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