November 2, 2007
Emmons: Studying "new science of gratitude"
By Claudia Morain
Psychology professor Robert Emmons has shown that people who count their blessings — not just on the fourth Thursday of the year, but in daily gratitude journals — exercise more regularly, complain of fewer illness symptoms and feel better about their lives overall.
Compared with those who dwell on daily hassles, people who take time instead to record their reasons for giving thanks also feel more loving, forgiving, joyful, enthusiastic and optimistic about their futures, while their family and friends report that they seem happier and are more pleasant to be around.
"Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people's lives," Emmons writes in his newest book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Published earlier this year, the book outlines 10 strategies for cultivating a feeling of thanksgiving throughout the year.
Gratitude was unexplored terrain for psychologists when Emmons began studying it in 1998. His first research subjects were students in his health psychology class at UC Davis.
Then, the professor assigned some students to write down five things they were thankful for each day and others to record five complaints. Three weeks later, the grateful students reported measurable improvements in psychological, physical and social well-being compared with their complaining classmates.
During the next decade, Emmons conducted variations of the experiment in dozens of other study populations, including organ transplant recipients, adults with chronic neuromuscular disease and healthy fifth-graders.
"We always find the same thing," he says. "People who keep gratitude journals improve their quality of life."
Emmons says his 10 strategies can help anyone cultivate a more grateful approach to life. But he warns that the exercises are not for the "intellectually lethargic." And he stresses that gratitude is incompatible with feelings of victimhood or entitlement, or with the inability to recognize one's shortcomings or to admit one is not self-sufficient.
"Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding," he said. "It requires contemplation, reflection and discipline. It can be hard and painful work."
Here are Emmons' evidence-based prescriptions for becoming more grateful:
Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky. I join my hands in thanks; for the many wonders of life; for having 24 brand-new hours before me.
Though he practices these techniques, Emmons acknowledges that maintaining an attitude of thanksgiving is hard work even for him.
"Most psychologists study what they're bad at," he explained.
However, his decade-long study of the subject has convinced him that Cicero had it right centuries ago. The Roman philosopher ranked gratitude as the chief virtue, parent of all the others.
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