What is gratitude?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on gratitude. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

1. Intro

Gratitude has long been a religious virtue, practiced by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists alike. Around 2000, UC Davis professor Robert Emmons set out with now-University of Miami professor Michael McCullough to study it from a scientific perspective within the field of positive psychology.

Through years of study (and studies), they have come to believe that gratitude is crucial to human relationships and to human happiness.

“By appreciating the gifts of the moment, 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 realization that right now, in this moment, we have enough, we are enough,” Emmons writes. “I believe it to be the best approach to life.”

Although gratitude seems simple, one of the themes of Emmons’s research is that it’s more complex than we think. Below, you’ll see that gratitude is much more than an emotion – it’s an orientation toward the world, and it can persist even in the face of difficult times.

Emmons’s introduction to gratitude in the video below explains the difference between simply saying “thank you” and being a profoundly grateful person. He also hints at some of the benefits we’ll discuss in week 3:

2. A feeling

Gratitude in the short term occurs when we realize that we’ve received a gift, it has value to us, it was good-intentioned, and it cost the giver something (not necessarily money). The degree to which we feel or express gratitude is influenced by our relationship to the giver, how we judge their motivation, and our past experiences of gratitude. 

For example, a frugal relative who takes the time and money to find a unique, personal gift for us will probably inspire lots of gratitude. But a husband who spends all his time working and then gets his assistant to buy Christmas gifts for the family likely won’t, even if the gifts are expensive; they cost him little effort and might even be seen as a poor attempt to make up for time away from the family. Gifts always run the risk of being perceived as bribes, which can make gift-giving outside family and friends tricky.

Once we’ve interpreted the gift in a positive way, it triggers a physiological response and possibly a verbal expression of gratitude. Although gratitude doesn’t have a particular facial expression, it might be discerned in our tone of voice or even tears in our eyes.

Feeling and expressing gratitude are two separate experiences. You can feel gratitude without expressing it, and you can express gratitude without truly feeling it. The science focuses on both aspects, as expressing gratitude toward others can make them happier and inspire them to be grateful as well.

3. An approach to life

Repeated experiences of gratitude like this can help us develop a grateful mindset or disposition, which starts by seeing the good in life. Our brains begin to be on the lookout for positive things, and we start comparing our situation to worse ones – Thank goodness I’m not… or At least that didn’t happen – rather than focusing on what’s missing in our lives.

Take a look at this short clip, where Emmons talks about gratitude’s intimate connection with surprise, wonder, and awe:

The grateful mindset also sees that we’re not self-sufficient and much of the good in our lives comes from outside. In fact, much of the good that happens to us goes above and beyond what we deserve (which is called grace).

Think about it: we live in an interconnected network of people. Most people have parents to be grateful for, who brought them up and helped them prepare for independence. We’re all dependent on farmers to grow our food, architects to build our houses, and inventors to give us such essential technologies as our iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy Tab. We’re constantly benefitting from the skills, creations, and kindnesses of others.

A grateful disposition is measured by four factors:

  • Intensity: How strong the feeling of gratitude is
  • Frequency: How often we experience it
  • Span: How many things we’re grateful for at once
  • Density: For a single positive thing, the number of people we’re grateful for for helping bring it about.

Some people are naturally very grateful, but for the rest of us, there’s much we can do to increase our gratitude – and we’ll discuss that next week.

4. A choice

We don’t have to wait for spontaneous feelings of gratitude to cultivate a grateful mindset. Gratitude is also a way of thinking, and we can choose to be grateful by looking for the good in the world.

“Gratitude is more . . . than a tool for self-improvement. Gratitude is a way of life,” says Emmons in his book. “Gratitude is a new way of seeing.”

In this TED talk, Catholic Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast explains what it means to live gratefully – to see every moment as a gift because it opens up an opportunity. All we have to do is stop and notice it:

Rast is 88 years old – can you believe it? I bet his attitude has something to do with it.

5. The star of happiness science

Gratitude is one of the most well-studied concepts in positive psychology and has links to many other aspects of happiness. When we reflect on good things from the past, we are savoring those experiences and increasing their pleasure (our topic for September). When we reflect on good things in the present, we are being mindful. When we thank someone, we build the bonds of our relationship (May). As gratitude becomes habitual, we shore up our “psychological immune system” and build up a wealth of positivity that will help us cope when times get tough (June). Look for these topics and more as we continue with The Year of Happy.

Do you consider yourself a grateful person? Feel free to share on our Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate gratitude

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

3 thoughts on “What is gratitude?

  1. Great start, I am looking forward to the rest of the year. I am thinking, if I can just manage this each week, my life will certainly improve. Thank you so much for making this available.


  2. This is a relatively sober article, but I like how it captures, why gratitude is such a happy feeling. Thank you Kira (haha:-) and see you next week!


  3. I found myself thinking about my opportunities and when I have been grateful. I automatically thank people at every opportunity but gratefulness at times when it’s not a gift has really been a learning or change point in the past.
    Thank you for this opportunity to learn and grow.
    I am stopping, looking and listening more than ever before..
    And I thought I was good at it 🙂


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