Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude
For too long, we’ve taken gratitude for granted.
Yes, “thank you” is an essential, everyday part of family dinners, trips to the store, business deals, and political negotiations. That might be why so many people have dismissed gratitude as simple, obvious, and unworthy of serious attention.
But that’s starting to change. Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
- Higher levels of positive emotions;
- More joy, optimism, and happiness;
- Acting with more generosity and compassion;
- Feeling less lonely and isolated.
That’s why the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley—in collaboration with the University of California, Davis—launched the multiyear project Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. The project is supported with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. The general goals of this initiative are to:
- Expand the scientific database of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of human health, personal and relational well-being, and developmental science;
- Promote evidence-based practices of gratitude in medical, educational, and organizational settings and in schools, workplaces, homes and communities, and in so doing…
- Engage the public in a larger cultural conversation about the role of gratitude in civil society.
To achieve these goals, we have developed a range of research and education initiatives, from a research grant competition to a series of articles on gratitude to a large public event.
You can learn more about the fruits of the first phase of the project (through June 2014) in this short video; the second three-year phase of the project launched in early 2015. A more detailed description of the entire project is below.
1. Research Grant Competition. At the end of 2011, we launched a $3 million research initiative to expand the scientific understanding of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of health and well-being, developmental science, and social contexts. We received nearly 300 applications from institutions all over the United States, and we evaluated each one based on its scientific significance, approach and methods, creativity, potential influence, and capacity for success.
The 14 winning projects were announced in August of 2012; they cover topics ranging from the neuroscience of gratitude to the role of gratitude in romantic relationships to how gratitude might reduce bullying. In the fall of 2013, grant award winners participated in a research retreat, where they presented their work to date and discussed the next stages of building the field.
2. Dissertation Research Awards. In January 2013, we announced 15 grants in support of the most innovative dissertation research projects on gratitude, with emphasis on research than spans two or more disciplines. Awardees received $10,000 for one year to assist in the conduct of their research into topics that include workplace gratitude, the role of gratitude in couples coping with breast cancer, and the neuropharmacological basis of gratitude.
3. Youth Gratitude Research Project. Building on research into the development of gratitude in children and adolescents, researchers at California State University, Dominguez Hills, the University of California, Davis, and Hofstra University have been running a multi-year study to address the following questions: What is the role of gratitude in positive youth development? What can the people with the greatest influence over children—parents, teachers, coaches, and others—do to foster gratitude in children? What is the developmental trajectory of gratitude in children? What school-based interventions can promote sustainable increases in grateful character traits? Is there a critical period when the capacity for gratitude is best transmitted from an older to a younger generation? To what degree is gratitude predictive of positive outcomes such as school success, overall well-being, community service, resiliency, health behaviors, and less risk taking? You can learn more about the Youth Gratitude Project here.
Public Education Initiatives
1. Expanding Coverage of the Science of Gratitude. New research on gratitude has the potential to improve the lives of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide. For almost a decade, the Greater Good Science Center has provided trailblazing coverage of the science of gratitude through its website, books, and other media. Now, as part of the project, the GGSC has greatly expanded its coverage, helping the general public understand new findings from the science of gratitude and apply this research to their personal and professional lives. In the latest phase of the ESPG project, the GGSC will also report on the launch, progress, and results of the research funded through the Expanding Gratitude project.
You can view our latest stories on gratitude here, including articles, videos, and posts to Christine Carter’s “Raising Happiness” parenting blog. Also check out our gratitude definition page, succinctly outlining what gratitude is, why it’s worth practicing, and how to cultivate it. For more on gratitude, see our list of key gratitude books, studies, and organizations.
2. Gratitude Radio Specials. As part of the GGSC’s efforts to illuminate the results of gratitude research through high-quality journalism, it has partnered with the Peabody Award-winning Ben Manilla Productions to produce a series of specials for public radio. First was the “State of Gratitude” series—a series of short pieces exploring different aspects of gratitude, such as the importance of gratitude in romantic relationships, in friendships, and in the workplace. The pieces aired on public radio stations nationwide around Thanksgiving of 2013 and can be heard here.
Building on that success, the GGSC and Ben Manilla Productions then co-produced The Science of Gratitude, an hour-long, documentary-style special narrated by Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon and distributed by Public Radio International to stations across North America. That special includes segments exploring gratitude’s role in health, happiness, education, and even death, combining the latest scientific findings with stories that bring the research to life. The Science of Gratitude is airing around Thanksgiving of 2015 and through the holiday season on public radio stations in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Atlanta, San Diego, Cleveland, Portland, and many other cities. Check with your local public radio station to determine when The Science of Gratitude will be broadcast in your area.
3. Digital Gratitude Journal. In the fall of 2012, we launched Thnx4.org, an online journal that allows users to record and share the things for which they’re grateful. This unprecedented, web-based effort to track and promote the practice of gratitude worldwide also serves as an invaluable source of scientific data on gratitude: Users of Thnx4 can see how practicing gratitude affects their health and happiness, and these results will also be made available to the research community, though individual users always have the option to keep their data private. In effect, Thnx4 gives the public and researchers the opportunity to study trends in the practice of gratitude, and it has the potential to provide a truly global snapshot of our planet’s current state of gratefulness.
Thnx4’s launch received considerable media coverage and engaged users from around the world; our analysis of its initial round of data showed that it gave a significant boost to users’ health and happiness. Thnx4 went offline in the summer of 2013 and is relaunching in the fall of 2015.
4. Public Event. In June of 2014, the GGSC hosted The Greater Good Gratitude Summit, a large public event where more than 600 people participated in a day of science, stories, and inspiration. This event featured presentations by researchers (including many of the GGSC’s gratitude grant recipients), educators, and special guests such as U.S. Olympic women’s swimming head coach Teri McKeever, producers from the public radio series StoryCorps, and spiritual teachers Jack Kornfield and Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Putting the Research into Practice
In the latest three-year phase of the ESPG project, running from 2015-2018, the GGSC is partnering with leaders in education, health care, and business to explore how the fruits of gratitude research can inform new initiatives to build well-being in each of those fields.
The GGSC’s work to apply gratitude research findings to the real world will be conducted in collaboration with GreatSchools.org, Teach for America, the Committee for Children (which runs the Second Step program), Kaiser Permanente, Sharp HealthCare, and several other prominent organizations.
Greater Good Science Center Resources
What to know more about the science and practice of gratitude? Please see these Greater Good resources:
- Gratitude definition page: The What, Why, and How of gratitude
- “Pay It Forward,” by Robert A. Emmons
- “Why Gratitude is Good,” by Robert A. Emmons
- “Ten Ways to Become More Grateful,” by Robert A. Emmons
- Pieces on gratitude from Christine Carter’s parenting blog, Raising Happiness
- “Love, Honor, and Thank,” by Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey
- “Stumbling Toward Gratitude,” by Catherine Price
- Key gratitude books, studies, and organizations.
- And take this gratitude quiz to learn how grateful you are!
Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude
Greater Good Science Center
University of California, Berkeley, MC 6070
Berkeley, CA 94720-6070
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