Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

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

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

26 Responses

  1. JHS says:

    Thanks for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Decem­ber 3, 2007, edi­tion of the Car­ni­val of Fam­i­ly Life, host­ed this week at http://www.imaginif.com.au!!

  2. That was a great inter­view. Grat­i­tude is def­i­nite­ly some­thing that has changed my life. Since I became grate­ful in my own life, things have been great. Def­i­nite­ly a good top­ic.

  3. Al Gammate says:

    Indeed, the dai­ly prac­tice of grat­i­tude can quick­ly wipe out the dark­est feel­ings of depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and anger.

    And it’s so easy to do.

    By sim­ply thank­ing God for each and every bless­ing in your life, no mat­ter how small or triv­ial, you are prac­tic­ing grat­i­tude.

    Say good­bye to Prozac!

  4. sherrie dunn says:

    I saw you at the LCA con­fer­ence and enjoyed your presentation..the grat­i­tude project is won­der­ful. You showed a video at the con­fer­ence on grat­i­tude and I would like to know if it could be made available.Let me know -I would like to show it to the teach­ers at my school.
    Thanks
    Sher­rie Dunn

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Neuroscience Interview Series, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.