Gratitude and Science

Thank you for joining me today as we continue our look at gratitude. This time we’ll take a look at some of the benefits modern science has shown gratitude to have on our lives.

While religion and philosophy have long valued and encouraged gratitude, it is only fairly recently that the medical community has began to appreciate the parent of all the virtues, and actually revealed that it can have a real, quantifiable impact on our health and happiness.

These aren’t left-field or fly-by-night outfits doing these studies either. The University of California in 2001 formed the Greater Good Science Center, and they recently announced a $3 million research initiative called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude in order to better understand gratitude and its physical and emotional benefits.

Professor Robert Emmons of UC Davis and University of Miami Professor Michael McCullough have performed several experiments which indicate that people who put even a minor focus on feeling gratitude daily feel better about their lives in general, report fewer medical problems and visit the doctor less often and even exercised more.

In fact, research suggests that an “attitude of gratitude” can improve a person’s life in nearly every possible area:

  • Better overall mood, feeling more relaxed, and less envious
  • Being more social, kinder to others, more friendships and improved relationships
  • Being less self-centered, more optimistic, less materialistic and more spiritual
  • Improved sleep, less illness, more exercise and increased energy
  • Improved management skills, goal achievement, and decision-making skills and increased productivity

There is now even a standardized test to evaluate a person’s “level” of gratitude, known as the Gratitude Resentment and Appreciation Test (GRAT).

Of course these studies did have examples of people who showed little to no positive results. In one example, young children were the subjects. They appeared to gain no benefit from the exercises intended to increase their sense of gratitude. More research will need to be done to determine exactly what is going on in this situation, but the thought is that gratitude is an emotional result of a more mature mind. This makes sense when one remembers that to truly gain the benefits of being grateful, the emotion must be truly felt. Simply saying “thank you” or expressing superficial gratitude is not sufficient.

One of the more impressive findings of these studies is the possibility that gratitude can actually not only improve a person’s general feelings of well-being, but actually increase their baseline happiness level. Everyone has a normal, regular level of happiness. Positive experiences will raise our level of happiness and negative ones will lower it, but eventually we will return to the normal level. Gratitude, however, appears to be able to raise this normal happiness level on a more permanent basis.

More studies are being done all the time, but it appears that science is now beginning to show empirically what many have known for millennia; cultivating an attitude of gratitude is one of the most important things we can do to improve our own lives. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at some simple and effective ways to help us experience more of the parent of all the virtues.

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