Science & Technology

Why we need gratitude research

Jeremy Adam Smith

“It’s a good thing to be grateful,” writes Steven E.F. Brown in the San Francisco Business Times. “But is there any ‘science of gratitude’? Well, the University of California, Berkeley, has a Greater Good Science Center — are you really that surprised? — and it’s spending $3.1 million on a project to study just that.”

He’s talking about our project Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, and in the article he argues that this is money wasted.

“Take some time in November, and every other month, to remind yourself of things you’re grateful for,” he writes. “You’ll be a bit happier and those around you will be a bit happier, too, and the world will be a bit nicer to live in. I don’t need $3.1 million and a database to tell you that.”

It’s actually a good piece about the value of gratitude, and we’re grateful to Brown for bringing attention to our work. Not all of it positive. One blogger who picked up Brown’s piece added: “No, this is not a Seinfeld joke — it is how government schools spend YOUR money.” (For the record: Not a dime of our Expanding Gratitude funding comes from the state; it comes entirely from the John Templeton Foundation. Almost all of our work is funded by private donations, including from people like you — in fact, we hope you’ll consider making a donation!)

Of course, we take issue with the insinuation that gratitude is unworthy of resources or scientific study. With our gratitude project, we’re funding 14 research teams to explore questions like how to cultivate gratitude in a consumer society; how parents socialize their kids for gratitude; what neural systems support gratitude; the impact of gratitude on people with heart disease; and many more. We’re also underwriting dissertation research about gratitude. And this month, we launched the pilot of Thnx4.org, an online gratitude journal that will also serve as a scientific tool for understanding gratitude.

The best argument I have at hand for the scientific study of gratitude actually comes from another short piece about our work, from San Francisco’s CBS News affiliate. As my colleague Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas says, studies consistently show that people who keep a gratitude journal are 25 percent happier than those who don’t. “The people who did the gratitude [journal] showed increases in happiness, reductions in stress, reductions in vulnerability to physical symptoms, such as headaches,” she says.

The piece features GGSC volunteer Janine Kovac’s story about how gratitude helped her get through the premature birth of her twins. Her individual story is powerful, and illustrates Emiliana’s research-based points. But are anecdotes like Janine’s enough to understand a behavior like gratitude?

The truth is, we need scientific study in order to understand why gratitude worked for Janine—and how we can spread gratitude practices throughout our society, and particularly to people who suffer for lack of it.

For example, Brown says that today’s Cal students “don’t seem a grateful lot,” a common theme these days. That may or may not be true of Generation Y—we haven’t found strong scientific evidence to support that particular claim. Even so, there are good reasons to believe that our society in general struggles with gratitude. (In fact, feelings of entitlement in kids is a topic our parenting blogger, Christine Carter, tackles this very week in a podcast called “Giving Thanks”.)

“The late philosopher Robert Solomon noted how relatively infrequently Americans talk about gratitude,” writes UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, one of the leaders of our gratitude initiative. “Despite the fact that it forms the foundation of social life in many other cultures, in America, we usually don’t give it much thought—with a notable exception of one day, Thanksgiving.”

Countering that tendency is precisely why we launched the gratitude project. Would we all just be better off taking a Sanskrit class at Cal, which is how Brown says he learned about gratitude? For some people, that might be enough. But of course there are lots of people who take Sanskrit classes (believe it or not), and odds are not all of them get more grateful as a result. Why might a Sanskrit class have had this profound effect on Brown but feel like a waste of dhana to other people? Impossible to say for sure. That’s where the research comes in.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we study how or whether Sanskrit makes people feel more grateful—now that might be a waste of money. But Brown’s example does highlight the essential purpose of this kind of research: to determine how millions of other people can reliably enjoy the same kinds of benefits that Brown took away from his Sanskrit class. Without that, we’re simply banking our happiness on chance and half-baked reasoning.

Certainly, we would agree that the world’s religious traditions have much to teach us about the practice of gratitude. But tradition and religion provide only very limited guidelines as to how we might encourage gratitude in contemporary secular settings like universities or hospitals.

And what if your cultural traditions work against gratitude? As Emmons writes, “Gratitude presupposes so many judgments about debt and dependency that it is easy to see why supposedly self-reliant Americans would feel queasy about even discussing it.”

That’s why scientific evidence for the benefits of gratitude is persuasive to those who might otherwise doubt its value, including people like me.

Just like Brown, I arrived at college as an ungrateful jerk, and I’ve had to learn the hard way to be grateful for what I have—and to say “thanks” to other people. I helped build Thnx4.org, but I’m also a user who benefits enormously from daily gratitude practice. Being prompted every day to say “thnx!” for something is critical discipline for those of us who, in the headlong, anxious rush of our days, forget to stop and appreciate the good things we receive.

Our general goals with the gratitude project are to expand the scientific database of gratitude, particularly in areas like human health and well-being; promote evidence-based practices in schools, workplaces, and institutions; and engage the public in a larger conversation about the role of gratitude in civil society. Thnx4.org is unique in that combines all three of those goals.

As we say on the site itself, “the Thnx4 project serves as a platform for gratitude scientists worldwide to ask a virtually unlimited range of questions about the role of gratitude in human life, both for real time and before-and-after experimental designs.” It provides both the “intervention”—a user friendly, free program for increasing gratitude—and the data collection device for discovering how gratitude influences people. We are talking to researchers who plan to use it to find out if expressing gratitude toward “outgroup” members mitigates prejudice, or if gratitude affects burnout in health care settings.

Those are important questions. We hope you’ll consider registering for Thnx4.org — and in doing so, help us to expand our knowledge of gratitude!

P.S.: Thnx4.org is very much in its pilot phase, and we appreciate any help you can provide. You can send feedback, queries, and bugs to gratitude (at) berkeley.edu. Thanks in advance!

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Comments to "Why we need gratitude research":
    • Lisa B.

      This is an interesting topic, and (sadly) one I have been reflecting on quite a bit over the last several years. Working in an industry of highly talented, younger professionals, I have often struggled with the lack of gratitude as a whole I’ve witnessed. It’s remarkable the difference a change of mindset from one of entitlement to that of gratitude can make – not only to a work environment as a whole, but to the individual themselves. Experiencing a little gratitude can change attitudes, behaviors and energies.

      Sadly we are at a place where such scientific experiments need to be made, but I am happy to see it. Our schools, communities (AND WORKPLACES!) need it!

      – Lisa Blair

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