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How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier

by Robert Emmons

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007

Review by Bo R. Meinertsen

Aug 18th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 34)


The American psychologist Robert Emmons, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, is one of the foremost researchers in the psychology of gratitude, part of the growing discipline of positive psychology. Together with his colleague Michael McCullough, he has done pioneering work in the scientific study of gratitude. In this popular and accessible book, he describes some of this research (occasionally invoking other empirical findings from medicine and neuroscience) together with a large number of individual case stories and anecdotes. Recognising the importance of the notion of gratitude in both western and non-western philosophy, literature and religion, he also describes many relevant ideas from these traditions and puts his own work into this broader context. While the presence of Emmons's unique approach ('the new science of gratitude') is evident, individual cases and these other traditions are given a lot of space.

The basic idea of gratitude has three aspects, which Emmons introduces with an etymological observation. The French expression je suis reconnaissant is translated as follows: as follows: (i) 'I recognize' (intellectually), (2) 'I acknowledge' (willingly), and (3) 'I appreciate' (emotionally). What is it that is recognized, acknowledged and appreciated? In a word, it's a benefit. Sometimes, of course, it's also the receiving of this benefit. Thus, to be grateful (to exemplify gratitude) is to recognize, acknowledge and value this benefit and/or receiving it.

Now, by definition, a benefit requires a benefactor. But in fact this benefit--benefactor sense of gratitude is somewhat technical. Gratitude in general does not require a benefactor. The thing that you're grateful for needn't be more than -- quite simply -- a good thing. As Emmons puts it, to be 'grateful is an acknowledgement that there are good…things in the world.'

However, ironically, while this acknowledgment of a good thing in gratitude thus doesn't require a benefactor -- at least not in any literal sense -- gratitude is intimately linked with viewing the good thing in case as a gift (a 'gift' implies a 'giver', and in that sense a 'benefactor'). But viewing a good thing as a gift doesn't require that it literally be a gift: it suffices to view it as if it were. And, as Emmons points out, the notion of viewing something as a gift plays a central role in the thought and language of grateful people.

The positive results of gratitude include a wide range of benefits, according to Emmons. He has found that grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism. What's more, grateful people in his view tend to feel more connected to others, have better relationships, be more pro-social and even be more altruistic. In addition to these directly positive effects, gratitude has the advantage of protecting subjects from 'the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness'. Also, grateful persons are better able to cope with everyday stress and adversity, and to recover from trauma and illness.

Thanks! has seven chapters. The first six are 'theoretical' with the characteristic mix of summaries of Emmons's work (including case stories) and ideas from philosophy, literature and religion; the last one, 'Practicing Gratitude' is purely practical, describing methods you can try at home in order to become a more grateful person.

Chapter One, 'The New Science of Gratitude', introduces the main ideas about gratitude.  The emphasis is on general ideas about gratitude and why it matters, not on Emmons's own research (despite what the title might suggest).

Much of this work is instead explained in Chapter Two, 'Gratitude and the Psyche'.

Emmons describes his studies which suggest that gratitude leads to improved wellbeing. I'll summarize the first of these studies to give a flavor of Emmons's research. In this study, lasting 10 weeks, he randomly assigned participants one of three tasks, which in turn would create one of three conditions. The first group of participants were to list five things from the past week that they were grateful for; the second group, by contrast, were to list five events from the past week that were hassles to them; and the third group were just to list five 'neutral' events from their life in the past week, without having been instructed to emphasize the positive or the negative. When examined, the gratitude group showed a considerably higher level of happiness than the other participants (25%, on the type of measurement employed). In addition, they had several benefits compared to the other participants, such as better general health (or reporting fewer health problems), better sleeping patterns and even spending more time exercising! Emmons significant  intriguing variants of this first study, for instance, one with daily journaling instead of weekly, and one with participants with serious illness (neuromuscular diseases). But the results are similar: gratitude makes you happier and healthier.

As I mentioned, gratitude is increased by viewing good things as gifts. This is central to the way it increases happiness and health. Viewing something as a gift seems to be a sort of 'cognitive amplification' that improves the positive experience of it. And indeed, Emmons conducted an experiment where participants were instructed to view good things as if there were gifts. This produced effects in the subjects similar to the first gratitude study. Emmons quotes Chesterton: 'All good things look better when they look like gifts.'

Chapter Three, 'How Gratitude is Embodied', describes the bodily and physiological factors associated with gratitude. A range of diverse topics from the health sciences are addressed, including the association between gratitude and a healthy heart ('a grateful heart is a healthy heart'), improved quality of life in sufferers of chronic pain, and life longevity. In addition, Emmons touches on interesting related issues, such body language, illness prevention and the doctor--patient relationship.

Religious people are often grateful, a fact which Emmons provides considerable evidence of. This shouldn't surprise us when gratitude plays an important role in many religions. And, of course, many religious believers see God as the ultimate benefactor of virtually anything they value. Chapter Four, 'Thanks Be to God: Gratitude and the Human Spirit' discusses these issues. Christianity gets an extensive and learned treatment, but Judaism, Islam and Buddhism (as the non-theistic example) are also discussed. Emmons shows that gratitude is a significant aspect of these traditions.

Thanks! also includes a chapter on ingratitude, 'An Unnatural Crime: Ingratitude'. This title is an allusion to David Hume's claim that 'Of all the crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural  is ingratitude'. Emmons makes useful conceptual distinctions and describes in some detail a range of obstacles to gratitude, such as self-importance, narcissism, vanity, perceptions of being 'a victim' and inability to acknowledge dependency on others.

Chapter 6, 'Gratitude in Trying Times' describes gratitude in the face of adversity. The message of this chapter is twofold. Firstly, gratitude can exist despite adverse circumstances. Secondly, gratitude enhances your ability to cope with hardship. In fact, as Emmons shows, not only can gratitude exist in adversity, but it can also increase in it.

Cases described include the Book of job and many moving examples: people with serious, progressive diseases, bereaved persons, Americans after 9/11 and Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

As mentioned, the final chapter in Thanks! is purely practical. It describes ten practical techniques for cultivating gratitude in your life. This is an important part of the book. The Naikan method, a simple technique for gratitude-focused self-reflection and meditation developed by a contemporary Japanese Buddhist, suitable for people of all faiths and none, in my view stands out among these. But the most effective of them is probably keeping a gratitude journal. This practice reflects the message from Emmons's first study, and it's very easy: at the end of each day, simply write down a few things that you're grateful for (and reflect and meditate on this.) Emmons praise for this practice is extraordinarily strong: 'if you want to dramatically improve the quality of your life, I would…highly recommend keeping a gratitude journal.'

In short, Emmons has succeeded in writing a book accessible to the general reader which not only summarizes some of his important research and many related case stories and anecdotes, but also integrates this with lots of major ideas from philosophy, literature and religious studies. In addition, the work includes a practice manual for cultivating gratitude in your own life. The number of ideas and cases might have been lower and more effort instead have been spent on clarification of fewer issues surrounding gratitude. But in any case, the two general aspects of the book, the theoretical and the practical, are brilliantly unified (the latter is supported by the former). Given this and the link between grateful living and happiness, Thanks! is both a contemporary, popular introduction to gratitude and an excellent self-help book.

© 2009 Bo R. Meinertsen

Bo R. Meinertsen is both an academic philosopher and a philosophical practitioner. He uses gratitude in his philosophical practice He's the editor of Practical Philosophy

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