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Dr Emmon's views on the science of gratitude

Thank you, Merci, Danke, Grazie: However you express thankfulness or indeed show gratitude is the latest phenomena to undergo scrutiny from the relatively new field of Positive Psychology. Dr Emmons presents the science of gratitude in his new book Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make you Happier

Positive Psychology aims to deepen the understanding psychologists have of how humans function at their very best; what makes them a success; and what makes them happy; and it translates the findings into a form which people can use in their every day lives.

Dr Robert Emmons from the University of California, Davis, is one of the leaders in Positive Psychology, the editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology and the author of the first research based book on gratitude, entitled: Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier.  This book uses the science of gratitude to explain: what gratitude is; what it means to be grateful; whether being grateful can lead to lasting change; and which exercises increase gratitude.  This is the first book of its kind to present a comprehensive account of the research on gratitude.

What is gratitude?
Emmons defines gratitude as two ways:

1. gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one's life 
2. gratitude is recognising that the source(s) of goodness lie at least part8ially  outside the self.  

Gratitude in itself is not a new concept, indeed most religions emphasise the importance of giving thanks, while many public celebrations are centred around the notion of showing gratitude, (for example thanksgiving in the USA) and many of phrases we use in our everyday language represent gratitude, such as 'It's the thought that counts.' What is new about this book however is the scientifically based research; practicing the art of gratitude can significantly increase well-being and happiness, among other things. Emmons weaves his own research findings with examples from history, philosophy and religion, as well as citing anecdotes from real people.

For example, people who lead lives filled with feelings of gratefulness and people who have suffered trauma and as a result of their hardship have been able to gratefully appreciate all that they have.  Emmons gives the example of Roger, who was about to lose his home due to mounting medical bills and extended unemployment. Roger's co-workers and friends threw a fundraising party in his honour and raised an impressive $35,000, which ensured he was able to stay in his home and pay off his escalating medical bills. He described the experience as feeling like George Bailey in It's a wonderful Life.

Emmons book is also scattered with quotes that either inspire the reader to feel more gratitude or highlight the flippant way some people feel about being grateful. For example:

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn?t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn?t learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful.  
The Buddha

Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.
Bart Simpson

What does it mean to be grateful?
Leading a more grateful life has been found by Emmons to be associated with an increase in many factors including happiness, well-being, physical exercise, life satisfaction, optimism, forgiveness, enthusiasm, love and even altruism. Furthermore Emmons also found that individuals who keep a gratitude journal report less illness symptoms, lower levels of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness and also cope more effectively with stress.

Can being grateful create lasting change? 
The major claim of this book is that gratitude can increase your happiness set point by 25 per cent. This finding actually contradicts the commonly held view that each of us has a happiness set point and that no matter what events or interventions occur in our lives our happiness will eventually return to this point. This phenomenon is generally thought to be due to the tendency for humans to adapt to their environment, in evolutionary terms this would be beneficial as we would adapt to having little food or the threat of danger but in the modern world where food is readily available and danger is limited, adaption is actually counterproductive. Adaptation leads us to take the good aspects of life for granted and leaves us always wanting more; indeed the consumerism that fuels us to always want the latest car, or a bigger house may be partly due to adaption. Emmons claims in this book that gratitude is one of the few intentional activities that can, with a little effort, actually improve our happiness set point.

Gratitude exercises
Emmons concludes this book with a chapter outlining 10 methods for improving gratitude (see the tips and techniques section), which includes: keeping a gratitude journal; using visual reminders; using grateful language; and being creative in looking for new situations and circumstances to be grateful for. If all these fail, Emmons recommends going through the motions as this is likely to trigger actual feelings of gratitude.  For example, mimicking the facial expressions associated with happiness such as smiling - can make people feel happier.

Emmons book is engaging and thought provoking. It is a mix of anecdotal and research findings which ensure that it does not alienate the lay reader, as it avoids discussing psychological theories in any great depth.  For someone new to the field of Positive Psychology it does, nonetheless, give a great overview of some key issues such as the happiness set point and the negativity bias. And for all those readers left thinking this is all just a little too positive Emmons does discuss issues such as ingratitude - obstacles to feeling grateful, (such as the negativity bias or forgetfulness) the notion that gratitude may be an 'unfair gift given to those of a sunny disposition' and the difficulty of feeling grateful in times of adversity. The reader is given a sense though that even if gratitude is hard to achieve or maintain in time of adversity, the beneficial outcomes far outweigh the effort put in. Indeed Emmons concludes the book by saying,

gratitude frees us from past regrets and future anxieties. By cultivating gratefulness, we are freed from envy over what we don't have or who we are not. It doesn't make life perfect, but with gratitude comes the realisation that right now, in this moment, we have enough, we are enough.

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