Monday, August 07, 2017

The Science of Gratitude

U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons has studied the science of gratitude. In his very approachable book entitled Thanks, Emmons tells about a study he and a research team conducted with participants whom he divided into three groups and who keep three types of journals for ten weeks—and I’ll restate this in my own words—one where daily the participants grumbled (describing what’s wrong in their lives), one where they stated things without sorting out positive and negative, and a gratitude journal where they simply noted what is positive in your life.

During this practice, he asked the participants to note their subjective levels of happiness. In other words, how would they rate their own happiness?

His findings? In contrast to the other two journal keepers, participants who kept the gratitude journal 
“felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions.”
According to the scale he and his research team used, 
“they were a full 25% happier than the other participants.”
Gratitude results in happiness because we are designed to be thankful.

Incidentally, John Templeton, the financier who later put his money into engaging life’s “Big Questions”—like the relationship of religion and science—had a very simple rule: start your day, immediately when you wake up, by noting two things you’re thankful for. And as a result, I’m told that Templeton, was an extraordinarily happy man.

Or maybe the word “extraordinarily” was ill-advised because Emmons research suggests that any of us—even those not born with a “sunny” disposition—can become happier through the practice of gratitude.

And this leads me to a question: if thanksgiving is fairly directly related to happiness, then why aren’t we more thankful? Don’t we want to be happy?

With this question, we arrive at the greatest problem in our culture, even though we probably have heard the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” our whole consumption-based society is founded on the idea that we can’t be thankful with what we’re given, that we always need more. As much as I can enjoy the craft of advertising, I know that its aim is increases our desires for what we don’t have. This makes it easy to be thankless in our society—to complain, to mutter under our breath that we could be happy “if only.” If only I had more money, I could buy that car, which would drive me past a stunning beach view, and I’d be accompanied by a beautiful person, who—because of car—would be sitting next to me.

As the proverb describes it, money can’t buy happiness, and I’d add this: wanting more money to buy more things positively makes us less happy.

My own goal out of all this is to be thankful for what I am receiving and not bitter for what I’m not receiving.

It seems that according to the science of gratitude, this has some marked positive benefits.

No comments: