:: Gratitude Research

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude in North America.

He has published Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happierhttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=sharpbrains-20&l=ur2&o=1, an interdisciplinary book that provides a research-based synthesis of the topic as well as practical suggestions.


The New Science of Gratitude

Author and researcher Dr. Robert Emmons has discovered what gives life meaning: Gratitude.

Emmons, a University of California, Davis professor, backs up his claim with eight years of intensive research on gratitude in his best selling book, “Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”

Emmons found that people who view life as a gift and consciously acquire an “attitude of gratitude” will experience multiple advantages.

Gratitude improves emotional and physical health, and it can strengthen relationships and communities. Some strategies include keeping a gratitude journal, learning prayers of gratitude and using visual reminders.

“Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished,” said Emmons. “Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. People are moved, opened and humbled through expressions of gratitude.”

Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is tough.

It is, according to Emmons, a “chosen attitude.” We must be willing to recognize and acknowledge that we are the recipients of an unearned benefit.

Emmons’ research indicates that gratitude is not merely a positive emotion; it also improves your health if cultivated. People must give up a “victim mentality” and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness.

As a result, he says, they will experience significant improvements in several areas of life including relationships, academics, energy level and even dealing with tragedy and crisis.

Research has also suggested that feelings of gratitude may be beneficial to subjective emotional well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). For example, Watkins and colleagues (Watkins et al., 2003) had participants test a number of different gratitude exercises, such as thinking about a living person for whom they were grateful, writing about someone for whom they were grateful, and writing a letter to deliver to someone for whom they were grateful. Participants in the control condition were asked to describe their living room. Participant who engaged in a gratitude exercise showed increases in their experiences of positive emotion immediately after the exercise, and this effect was strongest for participants who were asked to think about a person for whom they were grateful. Participants who had grateful personalities to begin with showed the greatest benefit from these gratitude exercises. In people who are grateful in general, life events have little influence on experienced gratitude (McCullough, Tsang & Emmons, 2004).

Highlights from the Research Project on
Gratitude and Thankfulness

Dimensions and Perspectives of Gratitude

Co-Investigators:  Robert A. Emmons, University of California, Davis

Synopsis.  Gratitude is the “forgotten factor” in happiness research.  We are engaged in a long-term research project designed to create and disseminate a large body of novel scientific data on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its potential consequences for human health and well-being. Scientists are latecomers to the concept of gratitude.  Religions and philosophies have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue, and an integral component of health, wholeness, and well-being.  Through conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences, we hope to shed important scientific light on this important concept.  This document is intended to provide a brief, introductory overview of the major findings to date of the research project.  For further information, please contact either of the project investigators.

We are engaged in three main lines of inquiry at the present time: (1) developing methods to cultivate gratitude in daily life, (2) developing a measure to reliably assess individual differences in dispositional gratefulness and (3) designing experimental studies that enable us to distinguish the differential causes and consequences of gratitude and indebtedness.

This project is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation of Radnor, PA.

Gratitude Interventions and Psychological and Physical


  • In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).


  • A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment:  Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.


  • A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).  There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.


  • Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.


  • In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.


Measuring the Grateful Disposition


  • Most people report being grateful (average rating of nearly 6 on a 7 point scale).


  • Well-Being:  Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.  The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions.  Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.


  • Prosociality: People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others.  They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).


  • Spirituality:  Those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities such as prayer reading religious material score are more likely to be grateful.  Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment to and responsibility to others (McCullough et. al., 2002).


  • Materialism:  Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and others success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of wealthy persons; and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons.


Distinguishing Between Gratefulness and Indebtedness


  • In a narrative study, people who write about being indebted to others reports higher levels of anger and lower levels of appreciation, happiness, and love relative to people who write about being grateful to others (Gray & Emmons, 2000).


  • The experience of indebtedness is less likely to lead to a desire to approach or make contact with others relative to an experience of gratefulness.  Thus, indebtedness tends to be an aversive psychological state that is distinct from gratitude.



Robert Emmons: Professor of Psychology
University of California, Davis
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616

Michael E. McCullough, University of Miami
 (contact: mikem@miami.edu;