Gratitude: Week 8 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 8, Gratitude.

Week 8-1: Intro to gratitude and happiness

Intro to gratitude (Dacher Keltner)

Robert Emmons, the pioneering researcher on gratitude, defines it as the a feeling of reverence for something given. It occurs when, thanks to other people, something good happens to us that we don’t necessarily earn or deserve. Michael McCullough adds that gratitude involves benefitting from someone’s costly, intentional, voluntary action.

During the Enlightenment, gratitude was recognized as a major moral emotion that promoted cooperation. Robert Trivers, an evolutionary thinker, believed that reciprocal altruism was driven by gratitude.

More of gratitude’s benefits are discussed below, but we’ll see that it brings more optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness as well as less envy, possessiveness, anxiety, and depression. Gratitude is linked to more cooperation, generosity, compassion, and happier relationships. It makes leaders more pro-social and reduces post-traumatic stress in certain groups.

Robert Emmons: The power of gratitude

According to Emmons, gratitude includes two components. It’s a fundamentally positive mindset, where we recognize that there’s some good in the world. Because it’s always directed at something outside ourselves, it’s also a recognition that we’re dependent on others.

There are two types of gratitude: a momentary feeling we experience when someone benefits us, and a more long-term mindset, where we see everything in life as a gift.

In contrast, ungrateful people see life as a burden. They focus on the negative and see everything they don’t have, instead of what they do.

“Pay it forward” by Robert Emmons

In one study, people were asked to list five things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks. Compared to control groups, they felt more optimistic, better about life, and 25% happier. They also had fewer health complaints and symptoms of physical illness, and spent more time exercising.

In another study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. At the end of it, they came out more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, attentive, energetic, excited, determined, and strong. They were more likely to support or help others, and other people did in fact rate them as more helpful. For people with neuromuscular disorders, this exercise led to more optimism and connection to others, positive emotions, and life satisfaction; along with fewer negative emotions. They were able to fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning.

Research on grateful people has found that friends rate them as more supportive, kind, and helpful. As one study showed, gratitude is even more effective than a good mood in getting people to help others.

Why is gratitude so powerful? It’s hard to feel like the world is terrible when we notice all the things that other people are doing for us. And when we express that gratitude, it deepens our connection to others.

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal

This week’s first happiness exercise is the gratitude journal. One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time.

To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it.

This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.

The psychological benefits of gratitude

Psychological benefits of gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Grateful people and people who train to be more grateful experience more happiness and pro-sociality and less negative emotions, stress, and anti-social feelings.

How does this happen? On the positive side, gratitude helps us not only see more of the good in life but also get more benefit out of it as we savor the experience. And afterward, gratitude helps us remember and reminisce about positive experiences. In this way, it reduces habituation – we take things for granted less.

On the negative side, gratitude helps us get past crises in life. Grateful people are more likely to see a crisis in a positive light and less likely to disengage and blame themselves.

“Why gratitude is good” by Robert Emmons

Gratitude has a number of different benefits:

  • Psychological: Grateful people have more positive emotion and pleasure, and are more optimistic, energetic, joyful, and happy. Gratitude helps reduce the frequency and duration of depression.
  • Physical: Grateful people have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They’re less bothered by aches and pains and take better care of their health, like exercising more. They also sleep longer and feel more refreshed in the morning.
  • Social: Grateful people are more helpful, generous, compassionate, forgiving, and outgoing; and less lonely and isolated.

By spotlighting something good, gratitude discourages us from taking things for granted, increases our pleasure, and bolsters our self-worth (because we can’t be that bad if people are being kind to us, right?). The positive attitude of gratitude helps us move past stress and actually prevents us from experiencing negative emotions like envy, resentment, and regret.

But gratitude is a bit radical in our society. It’s an admission that we’re not fully in control or self-sufficient, and we don’t always get what we deserve in life – we get more. It also challenges our “self-serving bias,” the way we tend to take credit for good things in life but blame the bad things on external causes.

In addition to the gratitude journal, we can cultivate gratitude by simply counting our blessings (in our head) daily.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Gratitude brings happiness

Lyubomirsky’s study had people do a five-item gratitude journal for six weeks, either once or three times a week. She found that people became more grateful, but only if they did the exercise once a week.

“Stumbling toward gratitude” by Catherine Price

Price’s story of reluctantly becoming more grateful reminds us that the practices work, but we still have to allow ourselves to feel bad once in a while – we can’t be happy all the time.

“How gratitude can help you through hard times” by Robert Emmons

We might think that gratitude is only useful when things are going well, but it’s actually a powerful tool when life is hard. Although gratitude in these moments might not make us feel good, it can shift our perspective toward the positive.

For example, we can compare the current situation to the worst time in our life (or, alternatively, think about mortality). Probably, today will come out looking a little better.

We can also reframe the situation, or find positive ways of looking at it. After a negative experience, this gives people more closure and fewer negative emotions and intrusive memories. For example, people with debilitating illness express sincere and intense gratitude – often about everyday things. This shows us that gratitude can be a choice.

To reframe the experience, we can start by thinking about how we learned and became a better person. Although painful, it may have brought out some of our virtues or shown us what we have to be grateful for.

The physical and social benefits of gratitude

Physical and social benefits of gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Researchers call gratitude the “find, remind, and bind emotion”: it helps us find people to form relationships with, remind us of their good qualities, and bind us closer to them. For example, receiving gratitude from a partner makes us more satisfied with the relationship, and grateful sorority sisters made more friends three weeks later.

“Scientific insights from the Greater Good Gratitude Summit” by Jeremy Adam Smith

The Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” was a three-year research project that funded 15 grants and 15 fellowships for grad students. Among some of the findings discussed:

  • Brother David Steindl-Rast (Benedictine monk) and Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield: The difference between miserable people who are well off and happy people who aren’t is gratitude.
  • Christina M. Karns: Gratitude is linked to cognitive control and reward systems of the brain.
  • Jeff Huffman: Gratitude helps people recover from heart attacks and deal with psychiatric problems.
  • Teri McKeever: Gratitude in sports can improve team spirit because people recognize how they help each other
  • Chris Murchison: People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else.

Wendy Berry Mendes: The physiological benefits of gratitude

The preliminary findings of Mendes’s research shows that grateful people have lower resting blood pressure, lower blood pressure responses to stressors, higher good cholesterol, and lower bad cholesterol. The mechanism by which gratitude affects health could be our oxytocin networks, potentiated behavior, vagus nerve, or stress pathway.

Philip Watkins: The social benefits of gratitude

Watkins compared the “three good things” gratitude journal to writing about things that made us proud or just random things, and found that the gratitude journalers became happier and kept becoming happier after the exercise. He believes that gratitude journaling trains our minds to notice good things, interpret situations positively, and think about positive events from the past.

Watkins characterizes gratitude as a moral or pro-social emotion. When we feel gratitude, it’s an indication that other people are acting properly toward us; it encourages us to return the kindness and express gratitude ourselves, reinforcing the moral behavior.

Gratitude strengthens our relationships several ways. We simply like grateful people, perhaps because they seem happier and more likely to help us. And they do help us, whether we have been kind to them before or not. Grateful people are more likely to want to work in groups (vs. alone), and they include others even at a cost to themselves.

“Love, honor, and thank” by Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey

One of the biggest struggles between married couples is the division of chores: if one partner feels it’s unfair, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied and consider a divorce.

But sometimes the problem isn’t actually the division but the lack of gratitude. What happens is that one partner has a lower “response threshold,” which means they get annoyed by the mess and notice it earlier than the other partner. So they end up always being the person to take out the trash or do the dishes. Over time, that becomes “their” chore and their partner expects them to do it, so it’s no longer a “gift” that requires thanks.

The first way to solve this problem is to be aware of it. When you’re starting a relationship, remember this dynamic and don’t get assigned a chore by default. If you’re already further along, recognize that the partner with the higher response threshold isn’t lazy; they simply don’t notice the mess as early as you do. When they realize that you’re constantly taking out the trash (or whatever the chore is), they can start to express gratitude and will probably start feeling the desire to give back, too. Or, you can remind them when it’s time for a chore to be done and express gratitude when they do it. You can even take turns so both of you appreciate what the other is doing.

In the end, couples who feel appreciated by their partners resent the division of labor less and feel more satisfied in their relationships.

Challenges to gratitude

Two types of challenges to gratitude (Dacher Keltner)

On one hand, we may have trouble practicing gratitude because we run into tensions with our daily habits or personality. Gratitude goes against individualism, narcissism, materialism, and feelings of entitlement. Simply feeling too stressed and busy can also get in the way.

But we might also have reservations about gratitude because we worry it will make us complacent or over-accommodating. Or, perhaps we think we’re already grateful – we say thanks, of course – and gratitude during suffering isn’t possible.

Tom Gilovich: The psychological barriers to gratitude

Tom Gilovich is famous for researching differences in how experiences and material things make us happy, and he applied these notions to gratitude.

One barrier to gratitude is the “headwinds/tailwinds assymetry” – the way we tend to notice obstacles holding us back (headwinds) but not the things that push us forward. The solution is to take advantage of the headwinds – people prefer to hear about our experiences, and stories about obstacles are more interesting, so we can delight them with tales of our struggles. That way, we begin to see our struggles more positively (or at least get some social benefit out of them).

Another barrier is adaptation, but it turns out we adapt more to things than experiences. Over time we become happier with experiences we’ve had, while we become less happy about things we’ve acquired. As Gilovich explains it, experiences become part of who we are and connect us to others. We’re also more grateful for experiences than things, and thinking of an experiential purchase makes us more generous – while thinking of a material purchase makes us less generous.

“What gets in the way of gratitude?” by Robert Emmons

Emmons discusses other psychological barriers to gratitude, including misconceptions about gratitude itself. When we believe gratitude is just a feeling, we might think that there’s nothing we can do to feel more grateful. But in fact, gratitude is a deliberate way of thinking.

Another barrier, particularly common among Americans, is the desire to not be indebted to other people.

The last difficulty is narcissism: people who are ungrateful also tend to be self-important, arrogant, vain, and seeking admiration and approval. These sort of people tend to be self-absorbed and focus on their own issues, which makes it difficult to empathize with their helper and express gratitude. Although narcissism isn’t common, all of us exhibit some amount of narcissism from time to time.

Amie Gordon: Potential pitfalls of gratitude

Gratitude isn’t good for everyone in all places at all times. Gordon outlines five ways we might be doing gratitude wrong:

  • When we do it too much: We get the biggest happiness boost when we do gratitude journaling less than daily and detail a handful of things we’re grateful for.
  • When we don’t take any credit: We shouldn’t feel so grateful to others that we forget how our own contributions and effort made something possible.
  • When we’re grateful to the wrong person, as in an abusive relationship.
  • When it hides serious problems: We shouldn’t look for things to be grateful for when someone has seriously wronged us.
  • When there’s a power imbalance: Gratitude can be tricky in a superior/inferior situation, where superiors perceive gratitude from inferiors as sucking up.

“Five myths about gratitude” by Robert Emmons

Here are the myths Emmons described:

  • Gratitude makes us complacent, accepting whatever we have as enough. In fact, in one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress. In general, grateful people aren’t more satisfied with their progress toward their goals than less grateful people.
  • Gratitude is just a fluffy form of positive thinking. In fact, gratitude may come with some negative emotions from the realization that we’re dependent on and indebted to others. Also, gratitude increases positive emotions more than it reduces negative emotions, and it doesn’t reduce anxiety, tension, or unhappiness at all.
  • Gratitude makes us self-effacing. Studies have shown that recognizing the contributions of others doesn’t reduce how much credit we take.
  • We can’t be grateful in hard times. As Emmons details above in “How gratitude can help you through hard times” and “Pay it forward,” gratitude is particularly useful after a crisis and can help us see the bigger picture.
  • Gratitude is for religious people. Although religious people are a bit more inclined to be grateful, anyone can do it – and being grateful to God doesn’t mean we’re less grateful to other people.

Cultivating gratitude

Cultivating gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Besides the gratitude letter and the gratitude journal, we can become more grateful in our daily lives by saying thank you more and trying to appreciate and savor positive experiences.

“Six habits of highly grateful people” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Very grateful people:

  • Think about death and loss. Thinking about losing something we have, or actually giving it up for awhile, makes us appreciate it more.
  • Stop and smell the roses and take delight in little rituals.
  • See life as a gift, and themselves as bound to all of humanity with give and take.
  • Are grateful to people, which activates biological systems of trust, affection, pleasure, and reward. In contrast, being grateful to something like nature doesn’t make nature happier or strengthen our bond to it.
  • Are specific about their gratitude. Saying exactly what we’re grateful for seems more authentic – instead of a “Thanks for everything you do!” – so very grateful people express their understanding of the giver’s intentions, costs, and value given.
  • Can even be grateful for adversity.

Giacomo Bono: How can we cultivate gratitude in schools?

Bono’s Youth Gratitude Project looked at gratitude in kids and adolescents. He found that as children get older, the objects of their gratitude change: from basic things (like sharing food or cleaning up) to people meeting their psychological needs (like sharing or teaching them something) to socio-emotional things (like inclusion, support, and encouragement). The things they’re grateful for also start to overlap more with the ways they’re generous toward others, indicating the cultivation of empathy.

Bono has started to see that gratitude can be taught to young people and can increase their well-being. For certain children, gratitude was associated with more well-being, hope, meaning, pro-social behavior, and social integration (and less depression) four years later. Girls tend to be more grateful and less anti-social than boys, and the more grateful children have more role models, more caring teachers, and more extra-curricular activities.

“How to foster gratitude in schools” by Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey Froh

Teaching gratitude to adolescents and high schoolers has many of the same effects we observe in adults:

  • High school freshmen have more positive emotions, hope, meaning, life satisfaction, and happiness – and less negative emotions and depression – four years later.
  • Middle school students who keep a gratitude journal experience more optimism, satisfaction with school, and life satisfaction, as well as fewer negative emotions and physical complaints.
  • Students who do gratitude visits have more positive emotions up to two months later.
  • Adolescents who feel grateful tend to help others and feel like they’re using their strengths to contribute to society.

To foster gratitude in young people, we can teach them to notice other people’s intentions when they give or offer help, as well as the costs those people may incur. We can also teach them to value the benefits they receive as gifts, not things they’re entitled to.

Sara Algoe: How does gratitude affect romantic relationships?

Being grateful in a relationship reminds us how valuable the other person is, encourages us to do something nice for them, and increases our overall satisfaction with the relationship. To infuse your relationships with gratitude, fight off the tendency to take things for granted and notice the other person’s actions, and show your gratitude in a genuine way.

“Gratitude is for lovers” by Amie Gordon

Studies have shown that grateful couples feel closer and more satisfied in their relationships, and they’re less likely to be broken up 9 months later.

Gratitude actually creates a cycle of generosity. When we feel grateful, we want to stay in the relationship and work to maintain it with caring and attentive listening. Our partner then feels appreciated and grateful, and the cycle begins again.

“Four ways to make the most of gratitude” by Amie Gordon

To use gratitude to improve our relationships, we should focus on giving first – thanks to that cycle of generosity, it will eventually come back to us. We should think about giving the person something they want, which will generate more gratitude than an expensive gift we took hours to find. We can also try surprising them with something, or simply saying thanks for who they are as a person.

“Five ways to cultivate gratitude at work” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Work is a paradox, as far as gratitude goes: we want to feel appreciated and enjoy saying thank you to colleagues, and grateful bosses have better-performing teams. Yet work is the last place we can expect to experience gratitude – in fact, 60% of people never express gratitude at work.

The environment is certainly tricky: everyone gets paid to do a job, so gratitude might seem misplaced. And, as mentioned above, gratitude could be seen as weakness – admitting we need others’ help – or a form of sucking up.

But gratitude can actually make us feel respected, enhancing our sense of accomplishment, purpose, and self-worth. It can build trust between colleagues and make them more likely to help each other out.

Here are Smith’s five tips for cultivating gratitude at work:

  • Have the boss start, so the rest of the team feels comfortable with expressing gratitude.
  • Thank people with thankless jobs.
  • Focus on quality gratitude (that goes into detail) rather than lots of cursory thanks.
  • Let people express and receive gratitude in their own style, from gratitude walls to gifts to little gestures of help.
  • Use gratitude to help the team get through a crisis and see the positives.

Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter

For the second happiness practice this week, the gratitude letter, think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you.

The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter.

The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


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