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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
All About Gratefulness
With Robert A. Emmons, PhD
Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer/Journal Managing Editor
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Nicknamed the “father of gratitude,” Dr. Robert A. Emmons wants you to know that you can become a more grateful person. Dr. Emmons is a professor of psychology for the University of California, Davis, and has uncovered numerous ways to help people increase their levels of gratitude. For example, you could make an effort to compare your current situation with harder times in the past, or you could keep a gratitude journal to help you establish a daily practice of being more grateful.
Dr. Emmons’s work on gratitude and happiness has been featured in prestigious academic publications, as well dozens of popular media outlets including the New York Times, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, NPR, and PBS. Today, we at Psi Chi are thankful for his willingness to answer our questions, especially on such a sunny, California afternoon.
What is gratitude?
I like this definition: “Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.” It emerges from two-stages of information processing: affirming and recognizing. Gratitude is the recognition that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift. It is a response to all that has been given. So it is foundationally and fundamentally a way of looking at life.
Why do people struggle with being grateful?
Unfortunately, many people suffer from gratitude deficit disorder. Among the major stumbling blocks are a sense of entitlement (“I deserve”), a compulsive need to be self-reliant (“I did it all myself”), a bias toward negativity (“There’s so much wrong in the world”), and forgetfulness and the busyness of daily life.
We also tend to be much better givers than receivers. Sometimes, this is because
  • we don’t want to give back,
  • we don’t feel worthy of receiving the benefits and generosity,
  • we don’t want to feel indebted, or
  • we might be suspicious of the giver’s motives.
There is this paradox of gratitude. Developing and sustaining a grateful outlook on life is easier said than done. It has become quite fashionable to critique others for their lack of gratefulness. In fact, when I give talks, the most frequent question that arises is “how can I get so-and-so to become more grateful?” If there is a crisis of gratitude in contemporary life as some people claim, it’s because we are collectively forgetful. We have lost a strong sense of gratitude about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude toward those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, and a lack of gratitude for all of the material adventures we have. Privilege, without gratitude, becomes entitlement. And entitlement is the enemy of gratefulness.
How can we make a habit of gratefulness?
The important thing is to establish the daily habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events. The place to start is with a reality check because we all begin life dependent on others, and most of us will end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between, we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that, throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people.
Gratitude takes us outside ourselves where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships that are mutually reciprocal. Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness. As such, we are called to gratitude. If we choose to ignore this basic truth, we steer ourselves off course. Just knowing this is usually enough to inspire a more grateful outlook on life.
How do people detect gratitude, and are they any good at this?
This is really difficult to do unless we broadcast or distribute our thanks verbally or in action. This is why it is important for us not to keep our thanks silent. The word “thanksgiving” literally means, giving of thanks. Thanksgiving is an action word. Gratitude requires action. There is the action tendency of paying back the goodness that we have received. Gratitude will not strengthen relationships if it remains silent.
Do expressions of gratitude have to be sincere?
Awareness of gratitude triggering experiences is usually not a struggle (unless the person is depressed) because there are so many opportunities for gratitude—you can create gratitude at practically any moment!
I find that the truth is in the details. Authentic gratitude is almost always specific. I once said to my wife, “thank you for being you.” She responded, “What does that mean?” She was not impressed with this particular attempt to show gratitude.
One of the keys to effective thank you’s is being specific. Gratitude in depth is more important than “gratitude by the numbers.” Elaborating on a particular benefit in detail is more beneficial than listing a number of benefits more superficially. In other words, go for depth over breadth. When recalling a benefit that we have received from another, break it down into multiple components and reflect on each element. We can then thank that person for each way in which we have received favor from them.
Being specific is effective for two reasons.
  1. It helps us avoid gratitude fatigue. The more discrete the elements, the less we will cease to recognize them or take any one of them for granted.
  2. Specificity encourages us to appreciate the giver’s efforts and recognize more of the details.
Therefore, I should express gratitude for my wife taking care of the kids and the home every time I leave town for a business trip because she makes my life so much easier than it might otherwise be. So, my advice is to be as specific as possible and avoid the “thanks for everything” approach or “thank you for being you.” This will make it more sincere.
Does gratitude have any negative characteristics or effects?
One of the more interesting aspects about gratitude is that trying too hard to be grateful can backfire. We turn gratitude into a self-focused personal project. The focus becomes how I am doing, instead of what others are doing for me. A preoccupation with our performance actually hinders our performance. This is the single most important thing that I’ve learned about gratitude. It’s not about us!
Let me explain. Gratitude, by its very nature, is an external focus. It’s about receiving a gift or benefit from a source out there. It’s about other people doing things for us that we could never do for ourselves; it’s about noticing the good, taking in the good, and giving back the good. Self-forgetfulness promotes gratefulness and is the primary reason that gratitude produced benefits. This turns gratitude inside out.
Why did research on gratefulness get a late start?
There are multiple reasons:
  1. Emphasis on negative states and traits until the Positive Psychology movement;
  2. Its reduction to an element of politeness, good manners, and civility; and
  3. Its association with religion or spirituality, a topic that the majority of psychology has ignored.
What are some myths about gratitude?
One of the myths about gratitude is that it leads to complacency. I’ve often heard the claim that, if you’re grateful, you’re not going to be motivated to challenge the status quo or improve your lot in life. You’ll just be satisfied, complacent, lazy and lethargic, perhaps passively resigned to an injustice or bad situation. You’ll give up trying to change something. But studies suggest that the opposite is true: Gratitude not only doesn’t lead to complacency, it drives a sense of purpose and a desire to do more.
There are more. Here’s an article I wrote on the myths:
What discoveries have surprised you about gratitude?
It would have to be the finding, now replicated in other labs, that gratitude improves sleep. This includes better sleep quality, shorter falling asleep latency, longer sleep duration, less need for sleep medicine, and less daytime dysfunction caused by lack of sleep. Given how sleep-deprived we collectively are, and how vital sleep is for healthy functioning, this is HUGE.
Gratitude also strengthens self-control. It makes people more patient. Not that this is super surprising, but rather it was an unexpected or nonobvious discovery.
How did you become interested in studying gratitude?
Believe it or not, it was an assignment. Literally. I was invited to a scientific conference and told to become the expert on the scientific literature on gratitude. The problem was that there wasn’t any! In the science of human emotions, gratitude was the forgotten factor. So I seized this opportunity and began conducting research right away. This was the best assignment I was ever given!
How has studying gratitude influenced you?
It has made me realize how hungry people are to apply scientifically verifiable findings to their own lives, and that we all struggle with unhappiness and negativity. As I did, and still do. You see, left to their own devices, our minds tend to hijack each and every opportunity for happiness. Negativity, entitlement, resentfulness, forgetfulness, and ungratefulness all clamor for our attention. Whether stemming from our internal thoughts or the daily news headlines, we are exposed to a constant drip of negativity.
Doom and gloom is on the horizon, as financial fears, relational turmoil, and health challenges threaten us. Weighed down by negativity, we are worn down, worn out, emotionally and physically exhausted. To offset this chronic negativity, we need to continually and perpetually hear good news. We need to constantly and regularly create and take in positive experiences. Gratitude is our best weapon, an ally to counter these internal and external threats that rob us of sustainable joy. So this research is a constant reminder to myself and others who encounter it.
How can your research be used to benefit society?
The grateful mind reaps massive advantages in life. Gratitude enhances performance in every domain that’s been examined—psychological, relational, emotional, and physical. Health, wholeness, wellness, and fullness result from the systematic practice of a grateful living. Its reach is so far and so wide that you really cannot overplay the hand of gratitude. This is why it’s been referred to as the ultimate performance-enhancing substance.
Gratitude has the power to heal, energize, and change our lives. It’s not simply that gratitude brings more happiness or better health. It’s much more than that. It literally breathes new life into us! And society needs more people who are alive. Luckily, we are at the dawn of a global gratitude renaissance. There is unprecedented enthusiasm for new scientific information on the science and practice of gratitude. In schools, clinics, healthcare settings, workplaces, and even in the halls of academia, there is an increasing awareness that gratitude is vital for individual and collective flourishing. Better people make better societies.
What are you grateful for?
I’m grateful that people who I talk to want to spread the word about gratitude. I’m grateful for readers, listeners, and the amazing interest that people have shown in what gratitude is and why it matters.
Do you consider yourself to be a grateful person?
No. I’m probably somewhere in the midrange. Many psychologists study what they do because they are kind of deficient at it but they want to improve. For example, people who study forgiveness tend to be grudge holding and people who study memory processes tend to be very forgetful. It’s kind of like that with me with gratitude. I think about it as a marathon journey. I’m more grateful than I used to be. But part of the reason why I study this is so that I can get better at it.
Any hobbies outside of the research area?
I used to play golf, but then I found that it took up too much time. I was also a little League coach. But now my kid’s too old, so I have a lot more time for research, teaching, and writing.
Who is your mentor, and what is the value of mentorship?
I have had many mentors, from my first undergraduate psychology professor; to my graduate advisor and research supervisor; to gratitude heroes, exemplars, and other sources of inspiration. One of my favorites is Brother David Steindl-Rast, the world’s foremost authority on gratefulness. He recently turned 90 years old. He said once that “gratitude keeps you young.” It is certainly true in his case. These mentors were all people who believed in me, supported me, and invested time and energy into working with me. We all need people like these who support our dreams.
What courses or activities should students consider who are interested in pursuing a career in this type of research?
What is a burning question that you would like to pursue in your studies? Think of a really big or important question. For example, I was once asked, “Dr. Emmons, how can we get 6 billion people around the world to practice gratitude?” That is a really big question. Then, read all you can, both the scientific research articles and more popular writings designed for the general public. Take any classes that are related to happiness, positive psychology, and well-being. Attend talks in person or watch on the Internet leaders in Positive Psychology. In other words, immerse yourself in the field. And look around. Psychology is about people. Not just theories in textbooks and journals.
What can we expect to see from you next?
Yogi Berra once said that predictions are risky, especially when they are about the future. However, one topic that I think is really, really important is joy. Joy is not the same as happiness. Joy is deeper and less based on circumstances. There are over 100 published research articles on happiness for each one on joy. I think this will be the next big topic in Positive Psychology. This will be a good investment for scientists, as was gratitude 20 years ago. So moving forward, I will likely have something to say about joy.

Robert A. Emmons, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis where he has taught since 1988. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana‑Champaign. He is the author of over 200 original publications in peer‑reviewed journals or chapters and has written or edited five books including Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Gratitude Works! A Twenty-One Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, and The Little Book of Gratitude. A leader in positive psychology, Dr. Emmons is founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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