Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gratitude and Health, Happiness, and Well Being

Although Cicero identified gratitude as the chief virtue and religious traditions have long used specific prayers to nurture this practice, social science has only recently studied the effect of gratitude on wellness. “Scientists are latecomers to the concept of gratitude. Religions and philosophies have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue, and an integral component of health, wholeness, and well-being,” writes UC Davis’ Robert Emmons. (

Emmons defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Cultivating gratitude involves concentrating on the present moment and recognizing others who have contributed to where you are today. (

Inspired by the Positive Psychology Movement which concentrates on developing human strengths rather than treating mental illness, Emmons and his colleague Michael McCullough at the University of Miami pioneered rigorous study of how gratitude can effect human health. Their landmark studies involved contrasting the psychological, physical, and social well being of subjects who wrote down five things that they were grateful for with subjects who kept track of five complaints about their lives. (

Adults who cultivate gratitude have more energy, more optimism, higher earnings, more social connections, more happiness, more sleep, more exercise, and more resistance to viral infections than those who do not. They are also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy, or alcoholics. ( Although the first research subjects were university students, Emmons has now repeated similar experiments with several others including organ transplant recipients, adults with chronic neuromuscular disease, and healthy fifth-graders. (

Jeffrey J. Froh at Hofstra has extended this line of research by studying children. Grateful children are less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches, and feel more satisfied with their friends, families, and schools than children who do not practice gratitude. (

Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside describes eight ways that gratitude can boost happiness. Grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences; savoring is defined as behaviors capable of “generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment.” Cultivating gratitude bolsters self-worth and self- esteem. People who are grateful cope better with stress and trauma. Expressing gratitude encourages moral behavior. Grateful thinking encourages and strengthens relationships with others. People who express thanks are less likely to make invidious comparisons with others. Expressing gratitude deters anger, bitterness, and greed. Gratitude counteracts hedonic adaptation, which explains why the happiness we experience after a positive event is so short-lived. (

Several leaders of the Positive Psychology Movement have developed scientifically based exercises to help us cultivate gratitude. Martin Seligman suggests writing a one-page testimonial to someone from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life. Meet with them in person to read out loud your essay and then reminisce together about your past history together. ( Lyubomirsky recommends keeping a gratitude journal where you regularly record your blessings. ( Emmons writes about watching your language because disparaging words reinforces negativity, and he also suggests learning prayers of gratitude if you are religious. ( A Buddhist exercise instructs people to ask themselves the following questions daily: “What have I received from…? What have I given to…? and What trouble have I caused…?” (

Emmons believes all can have a more grateful approach to life, but it requires hard work. One who practices gratitude cannot be a victim or entitled. In order to cultivate this practice one must be able to recognize one’s shortcomings and dependence on others. “Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding. It requires contemplation, reflection, and discipline. It can be hard and painful work,” writes Emmons. (

Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows that my nature can be sarcastic and cynical. I have a lot of work to do in this area, but I am trying it out; it works. I am especially working on a better sieve mechanism to prevent the almost spontaneous generation of disparaging and sometimes accurate words to describe my world and fellow human beings.


  1. I always appreciate your reflections in this area, Kent. Thanks for another great post along with the helpful links.

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