The New Science of Gratitude
I cannot tell you anything that, in a few minutes, will tell you how to be rich. But I can tell you how to feel rich, which is far better, let me tell you firsthand, than being rich. Be grateful . . . Its the only totally reliable get-rich-quick scheme.
Ben Stein, actor, comedian, economist
In 1999, the renowned writer Stephen King was the victimof a serious automobile accident.While King was walking on a country road not far from his summer home in rural Maine, the driver of a van, distracted by his rottweiler, veered off the road and struck King, throwing him over the vans windshield and into a ditch. He just missed falling against a rocky ledge. King was hospitalized with multiple fractures to his right leg and hip, a collapsed lung, broken ribs, and a scalp laceration. When later asked what he was thinking when told he could have died, his one-word answer: Gratitude.” An avowedly nonreligious individual in his personal life, he nonetheless on this occasion perceived the goodness of divine influence in the outcome. In discussing the issue of culpability for the accident, King said, Its Gods grace that he [the driver of the van] isnt responsible for my death.” This brief glimpse into the private life of the most successful horror novelist of all time reveals that gratitude can occur in the most unlikely of circumstances. Specializing as he does in writing about the darker, more fearful side of life, the King” of terror is an unlikely poster person for gratitude. Normally we associate gratitude with the more elevated, exalted realms of life. For centuries, theologians, moral philosophers, and writers have identified gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue and excellence of character. One contemporary philosopher recently remarked that gratitude is the most pleasant of virtues and the most virtuous of pleasures.” Despite such acclaim, gratitude has never, until recently, been examined or studied by scientific psychologists. It is possible that psychology has ignored gratitude because it appears, on the surface, to be a very obvious emotion, lacking in interesting complications: we receive a gift from friends, from family, from Godand then we feel pleasurably grateful. But while the emotion seemed simplistic even to me as I began my research, I soon discovered that gratitude is a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change peoples lives.
It is perhaps inevitable that work rectifying such a glaring scientific omission would, like so many other breakthroughs, begin serendipitously. As a professor at the University of California, Davis, in the 1980s, I had become interested in what is now known as positive psychology, the study of human emotions that are healthy and pleasurable aspects of life (as opposed to the fields prior concentration on clinical and emotional problems). From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the focus of my research was on happiness and goal strivings. Then, in 1998, I was invited to attend a small conference on what were deemed the classical sources of human strength”: wisdom, hope, love, spirituality, gratitude, humility. Each scientist was given the charge of presenting the known body of knowledge on his or her topic and developing a research agenda for the future.My first choice, humility, was taken; instead, I was assigned gratitude. I canvassed the theological, philosophical, and social science literatures, culling insights from these disciplines in an attempt to understand the essence of this universal strength. I soon came to believe that the capacity for gratitude is deeply woven into the fabric of the human species and possibly other species as well.
After the conference, I began a program of scientific research in collaboration with Michael McCullough, psychologist at the University of Miami, in which we made several important discoveries about gratitude. We discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and interpersonal. The evidence on gratitude contradicts the widely held view that all people have a set-point” of happiness that cannot be reset by any known means: in some cases, people have reported that gratitude led to transformative life changes. And, even more important, the family, friends, partners, and others that surround them consistently report that people who practice gratitude seem measurably happier and are more pleasant to be around.
This book showcases the new science of gratitude. Woven into the narrative is a discussion of how the great religious leaders, philosophers, theologians, and writers have written about gratitude in different cultures and historical periods. To encourage the reader to begin the journey of gratitude practice, I include a discussion of practical techniques that will increase readers gratitude and happiness. I intend this book to provoke intellectual interest as well as selfexamination; I hope to provide you with information that might inspire you to make life-altering decisions.
What Gratitude Is
What exactly do we mean by gratitude? Most of us have an everyday sense of the concept. When I am grateful, I acknowledge that I have received a gift, I recognize the value of that gift, and I appreciate the intentions of the donor. The benefit, gift, or personal gain might be material or nonmaterial (emotional or spiritual).
From a scientific perspective, though, gratitude defies easy classification. Some years ago, the Web site for a popular radio talk show sold T-shirts emblazoned with the motto Gratitude is an Attitude.” It certainly is an attitude, but it ismuch more.Gratitude has also been depicted as an emotion, a mood, a moral virtue, a habit, a motive, a personality trait, a coping response, and even a way of life. The Oxford English Dictionary defines gratitude as the quality or condition of being thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness.” The word gratitude is derived from the Latin gratia, meaning favor,” and gratus, meaning pleasing.” All derivatives from this Latin root have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing. Gratitude is pleasing. It feels good. Gratitude is also motivating. When we feel grateful, we are moved to share the goodness we have received with others.
Gratitude Is Recognizing and Acknowledging In my own thinking about gratitude, Ive found it very helpful to conceive of it in terms of two stages. First, gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in ones life. In gratitude we say yes to life. We af- firm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, either by its presence or by the effort the giver went into choosing it. Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself. This is one significant way in which gratitude differs from other emotional dispositions. A person can be angry at himself, pleased with herself, proud of himself, or feel guilty about doing wrong, but it would be bizarre to say that a person felt grateful to herself. Even if you bought yourself a lavish dinner, as I am inclined to do when I order room service, it would be peculiar if I were to give thanks tomyself. Thanks are directed outward to the giver of gifts.
From this angle, gratitude is more than a feeling. It requires a willingness to recognize (a) that one has been the beneficiary of someones kindness, (b) that the benefactor has intentionally provided a benefit, often incurring some personal cost, and (c) that the benefit has value in the eyes of the beneficiary. Gratitude implies humility a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others. Gratitude also implies a recognition that it is possible for other forces to act toward us with beneficial, selfless motives. In a world that was nothing but injustice and cruelty, there would indeed be no possibility of gratitude. Being grateful is an acknowledgment that there are good and enjoyable things in the world.
These two terms, recognition and acknowledgment, need some unpacking. First, they suggest that gratitude (or thankfulness) is an effortful state to create and maintain. It is not for the intellectually lethargic. Thanking belongs to the realm of thinking: the two words stem from common etymological roots. Prominent existential philosopher Martin Heidegger was fond of saying Denken ist Danken” (thinking is thanking”). The French language is especially rich in expressions having to do with thanking. The term reconnaissance is from the French reconoissance, meaning an inspection or exploration for the purpose of gathering information. It typically has a military connotation, but in the context of gratitude it refers to inspecting or exploring ones life for the purpose of seeing to whom thanks should be given. The French expression je suis reconnaissant” is translated as a three-part construal: (1) I recognize” (intellectually), (2) I acknowledge” (willingly), and (3) I appreciate” (emotionally). Only when all three come together is gratitude complete.
This brief etymological detour suggests already that gratitude is much more than mere politeness or a superficial feeling. Recognition is the quality that permits gratitude to be transformational. To recognize is to cognize, or think, differently about something from the way we have thought about it before. Think about an experience in your life when what was initially a curse wound up being a blessing in disguise. Maybe you were terminated from a job, a marital relationship dissolved, or a serious illness befell you. Gradually, you emerged from the resulting darkness with a new perception. Adversity was transformed into opportunity. Sorrow was transformed into gratefulness.You re-cognized the event. The re-cognizing might also involve matters much more mundane than downsizing, divorce, or disability. Driving to work on an ordinary day, we may for the first time notice a sunrise, a meadow bursting with spring blooms, or a formation of geese overhead, and find ourselves suddenly overcome with grateful awe.
Gratefulness is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness. In gratitude we remember the contributions that others have made for the sake of our well-being. On the recipient side, we acknowledge having received a benefit, and we realize that the giver acted intentionally in order to benefit us. On the giver side, we acknowledge that the receiver was in need of or worthy of the benefit, and we recognize that we are able to provide this benefit.We cannot be grateful without being thoughtful. We cannot shift our mental gears into neutral and maintain a grateful lifestyle. This is why gratitude requires contemplation and reflection.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert A. Emmons. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.