Gratitude pays. Just ask Dr. Robert Emmons.
Last week the John Templeton Foundation announced that they were giving Emmons, a psychology professor at U.C. Davis, $5.6 million to fund a three-year project to promote evidence-based practices of gratitude in schools, offices, homes, and communities. But as Emmons himself would likely say, the real payoff isn’t in the number of dollars his research is attracting, but in the impact that gratitude is having on people’s lives; perhaps most importantly on their health.
Considered a pioneer in the field of positive psychology – a discipline that focuses less on illness and emotional problems and more on health-inducing behavior – Dr. Emmons has made a reputation for himself as one of the world’s preeminent proponents of maintaining a thankful attitude.
In one of his studies, also funded by Templeton, Dr. Emmons took a group of participants and divided them into three groups. At the end of each week one group wrote down five things they were grateful for. Another group kept track of daily hassles. And a control group listed five events that had made some impression on them.
In the end, Emmons discovered that those in the gratitude group generally felt better about their lives, were more optimistic about the future, and reported fewer health problems than the other participants. He also discovered that daily writing led to a greater increase in gratitude than weekly writing. Studies conducted on people recovering from heart attacks and those suffering from various neuromuscular diseases produced similar results.
Emmons’ research is summarized in his book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
Like many others, I can relate to what Dr. Emmons is discovering about the connection between a grateful heart and a healthy heart. But for me it goes even further, deeper than that. As a practitioner of Christian Science, I’ve found that gratitude is more than now-and-then positive thinking. It's a natural, foundational part of life and therefore inextricably linked to consistent health.
Emmons notes this himself in his citation of a 2002 study (McCullough et. al.) that found those who attend religious services or engage regularly in some type of spiritually oriented activity such as prayer are more likely to be grateful. This is not to say that you have to be religious in order to be grateful; only that our faith tends to enhance our ability to be grateful. He’s also discovered that unlike the generally accepted theory that the body has a genetically determined “set point” for weight, your gratitude meter can actually be bumped up a notch or two, which, in turn, bumps up the level of your happiness and health.
Could it be, then, that we have more control over our health than previously thought? And, if so, are there other qualities of thought besides gratitude that we could and perhaps should be cultivating? Given the amount of money being spent on medical research, $5.6 million seems like a rather small price to pay for answers to these and other questions about the increasingly undeniable link between thought and body.