The Gratitude Effect

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“Gratitude has the power to heal, to energize, and to change lives,” said researcher Robert Emmons at the June 7th Greater Good Gratitude Summit. “We’re here to celebrate the science and the spirit of gratitude.”Emmons, Robert

While gratitude may be a familiar topic in religious circles, these comments came from a professor of psychology at U.C. Davis, author of multiple books, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. Backed by funding from the John Templeton Foundation, he and other leaders across the U.S. oversee fourteen three-year-long studies that are measuring evidence-based effects of gratitude as both a science and a practice.

In a panel called “The Gratitude Effect,” four scientists presented their teams’ findings on physical, psychological and social benefits of gratitude. Christina Karns distinguished gratitude from mere happiness by saying “gratitude compels us to give back.” Then she cited her study of its connection to altruism by analyzing the neural systems of the mid-brain. She has been measuring pleasure in the brain as people chose to keep their work bonus for themselves, or give it to a charity instead.

Wendy Mendes is a social and biological scientist. Her team has been exploring gratitude’s effects on health and length of life. They have found that gratitude contributes to better well-being, lower anxiety and lower anger; more social connections with others; better sleep quality; and lower blood pressure both at rest and reactivity.

Jeff Huffman is a professor and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He is completing a study of the effects of gratitude on people who have survived a heart attack. By testing people while they are in the hospital, two weeks later, three months later, and six months later, he has noted that people who show gratitude (by both self-check and biomarkers) exercise more and eat healthier foods, and have a better quality of life. The results so far show that gratitude has positive biological effects, and protects against hopelessness and cardiac events.

Philip Watkins is a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. He has focused on how gratitude enhances well-being through cognitive processes, as people recall what they are grateful for. “Grateful recounting may train you to notice the good in your life,” he said, “to make positive interpretations of good events, and to help you reflect positively on events in your past.” He has found that gratitude increases our desire to affiliate with others, even when there is a cost to oneself. It enhances our tendency to include others and helps us find new relationships, be reminded of relationships that are helpful to our well-being, and brings us closer in the relationships we have.

Okay, so we are not grateful in order to receive all these benefits. But isn’t it amazing how the impulse to give back, out of gratitude, ends up giving back to the giver, as well?

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

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