Terri Schaffner has a morning ritual that fuels her well-being. She sips coffee among the goats and chickens in her Louisiana backyard, and takes stock of the good in her life: A rewarding career. The grandchildren down the road. Riding motorcycles around Lake Bistineau with her husband. Time, after all these years, to make pottery and pursue oil painting. Another day without drugs or prison walls.
Schaffner’s 23-year addiction to methamphetamine sent her to prison three times for dealing and using the drug. In recovery and quiet reflection, she finds peace.
“I realize that I have had lots of material things in life but was never happy with it all,” Schaffner says. “Now, as I step outside each day to connect with nature, I am at one with the Universe, realizing we are all connected by our Higher Selves. I sense mine pulling me into a more elevated, enlightened space. And I am grateful.”
Science tells us that feeling grateful is key to our physical and emotional health. We asked one of the nation’s top researchers on gratitude, Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., to share his insights on the evidence for gratitude – why it matters, and how a practice of giving thanks can make our lives better.
Q & A on Gratitude with Dr. Robert A. Emmons
Dr. Emmons is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Emmons Lab, which studies the science and practice of gratitude. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of several books on gratitude and its benefits for health and well-being. His latest book, The Little Book of Gratitude, teaches easy techniques to foster more gratitude in our daily lives.
In a nutshell, how does a practice of gratitude benefit our mental and physical health?
Gratitude maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of things we like about ourselves, of our lives, and the world around us. All this contributes to the evidence base that gratitude can make you happier, healthier, and thriving.
The grateful mind reaps massive advantages in life. Gratitude enhances performance in every domain that’s been examined – psychological relational, emotional, physical. Health and wholeness and wellness and fullness result from the systematic practice of a grateful living. Its reach is so far and so wide, you really cannot over play the hand of gratitude. This is why it’s been referred to as the ultimate performance-enhancing substance.
Gratitude has the power to heal, to energize and to change our lives. And 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. It recharges and it rejuvenates. One man in his 90s said that gratitude “keeps you young.”
How does gratitude influence how we interact with others?
The expression of genuine gratitude is very important.
1. When we express an emotion, it tends to magnify or AMPLIFY the feeling. So, expressing thanks makes our gratitude stronger. Therefore we more benefit from it (in a dose-response relationship – the more, the better).
2. Expressing thanks builds and strengthens our relationships. Gratitude is the relationship-building emotion. So, not only do we get the internal, personal benefits, but also the external, relational elements that are less likely to happen if the gratitude stays “silent.” We cannot and do not live alone. One just needs to imagine human relationships existing without gratitude. They would unravel. Gratitude is the moral cement, the all-purpose glue, the emotional spackle that squeezes into the cracks between people, strengthening and solidifying these relationships. Without gratitude we’d be in relational ruin. Organizations, families, societies would crumble.
Do the effects of gratitude last? What does the research show?
Yes. Left to their own devices, our minds tend to hijack each and every opportunity for happiness. Negativity, entitlement, resentfulness, forgetfulness, ungratefulness all clamor for our attention. Whether stemming from our own internal thoughts or to 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. The effects are lasting, as long as one continues to view life through a grateful lens.
What are some tips for cultivating a daily practice of gratitude?
Here are 5 concrete suggestions:
1. Make a list of what you typically take for granted. Then think about these “as granted” rather than “for granted.” Huge difference.
2. Consider what your life would be like without this person/event/circumstance (the “George Bailey effect”). In other words, if this had never happened or came along. Subtract something good from your life. This is known as addition via subtraction.
3. Give something away. When we are givers, we reflect more clearly on what it is like to be a receiver. Also, we are grateful for the opportunity to give, knowing that giving brings happiness to self and others.
4. Identify non-grateful thoughts: for example, thinking you deserve better circumstances, that other people are better off; that life is boring, that I am entitled to this, that, or the other; that life is monotonous, tedious; that things have not turned out the way you wanted. Practice using the language of thankfulness: Gifts, givers, receivers, favor, fortune, fortunate, blessed, lucky.
5. Find someone behind the scenes at your workplace or neighborhood and thank them. Speak words of gratitude to them. This is linguistic medicine. Takes two minutes. You will both benefit.
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Is there any research on how gratitude can help people in long-term recovery from addiction, or those struggling with drug relapse?
There is some, but very preliminary. Grateful people do take better care of their health, engaging in more health promoting and fewer health damaging behaviors. Gratitude as a strategy is beneficial for those who are addicted and afflicted. It is foundational to 12-step programs.
Service is an essential component to many 12-step programs and their secular alternatives. What’s the connection between altruism and gratitude?
Gratitude motives, inspires, and energizes. Gratitude is incompatible with inactivity, passivity, hopelessness. Grateful people are more likely to draw upon the support of others to make positive changes. This relates to other research showing that gratitude inspires “pro-social” behavior such as generosity, compassion, and charitable giving – none of which suggests passivity or resignation. Instead, it suggests that gratitude motivates people to go out and do things for others – to give back, I think, some of the goodness that they recognize receiving themselves.
Also, as I mentioned, when we are givers, we reflect more clearly on what it is like to be a receiver. We are grateful for the opportunity to give, knowing that giving brings happiness to self and others. It is to turn gratitude in thanksgiving – giving back the goodness we have received. We cannot reap all the happiness benefits of gratitude 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. We can be grateful for the opportunity to give, because it reminds us that we too are dependent on the kindness of others in order to flourish.
What is your advice for people who generally don’t feel grateful? Perhaps they are still recovering from childhood trauma or a painful past, or living with a dysfunctional family. How can they foster a spirit of gratitude?
It starts with the realization that gratitude empowers and liberates us to take control of our emotional lives, and not be prisoners of circumstances and experiences. There is always, always, always something to be grateful for or someone to be grateful to.
I believe that gratitude is the best approach to life. When life is going well, it allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. When life is going badly, it provides a perspective by which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. People who live under an “aura of pervasive thankfulness” reap the rewards of grateful living; conversely, those who fail to feel gratitude cheat themselves out of their experience of life. And why would we want to cheat ourselves? Besides, if we are not grateful, by default we are choosing resentment or unforgiveness and other enslaving emotions. Why be prisoners like that?
In your opinion, what is the most interesting experiment or study on gratitude?
The first study of ours that was a randomized controlled trial on counting blessings vs. burdens. You can see the study here.