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Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

 

Gratitude Research Grant Winners

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As part of our Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project, in 2012 the Greater Good Science Center—in collaboration with the University of California, Davis—awarded $3 million in grants to expand the scientific understanding of gratitude, supported with funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

We received almost 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. Here are the 14 winning projects, which received research grants that ranged from $168,000 to $338,000. Click on the links below to read more about each project.

Sara B. Algoe Sara B. Algoe
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Project: "Unpacking the Mechanisms of Gratitude’s Benefits within Close Relationships"

Dr. Algoe’s project looks at how gratitude affects romantic partners’ feelings for one another, as well as their style of relating to each other.

For the first of two studies, Algoe’s team will recruit 120 couples that have been together for at least a year and invite them into the lab for a 90-minute experiment. The researchers will investigate the biological factors that may be associated with expressed gratitude, through urine and saliva samples. For example, they will measure circulating oxytocin, which is a neuropeptide associated with the promotion of social bonds, as well as a measures of parasympathetic nervous system activity that has been associated with social connection and positive emotional tendencies. During the lab visit, couples will participate in face-to-face video-recorded interactions that will assess the effects of expressing gratitude, compared to another positive emotion. Because there are multiple possible pathways through which expressions of gratitude (or other positive emotions) may play a role in ongoing relationships, the team will measure affective, cognitive, and behavioral consequences of such interactions.

Algoe’s second study will bring 160 couples to the lab on two occasions. Couples will again provide biological samples and have face-to-face interactions at each lab visit, this time while the research team measures physiological responding during the conversations. Participants in this study will also complete brief online reports each night for three weeks between lab visits, to illuminate the everyday pathways through which gratitude may be associated with relationship functioning.
Sarah Algoe’s Publications

Yarrow Dunham Yarrow Dunham
Princeton University

Project: "Gratitude in Development: Cognitive and Normative Contexts"

Dr. Dunham and Dr. Peter Blake are collaborating on a series of studies that examine the developmental emergence of gratitude in children.

One major goal is to identify developmental capacities that enable or impede gratitude in children, and how these capacities might relate to cooperative behavior more broadly. One set of ongoing studies explores the emergence of children’s sensitivity to factors that define gratitude in adults. Gratitude is characterized as a unique emotional state that arises through social interactions in which a person receives a benefit from another. When the benefit has been given freely and without further obligation, the recipient should be motivated not only to “pay back” the benefit to the giver but also to “pay forward” benefits to others. We have created experimental paradigms to investigate the developmental emergence of the sensitivity to how gifts are given (forced or voluntarily) as well as the impact of those gifts on their subsequent behavior (both paying back versus paying forward). Variations on this paradigm explore whether children recognize a “gift” of valuable information, and whether they pay back/forward in a similar or different currency.

Several future directions are now emerging. First, do strong norms enforcing sharing sometimes ironically undercut gratitude by rendering acts of generosity more obligatory and thus less praiseworthy? Second, to explore individual differences in the propensity towards gratitude, as well as the “gratitude phenotype”, we are conducting longitudinal studies in which we track children across development, incorporating self-reported gratitude as well as behavioral and genetic data.

Dunham and Blake’s studies promise to characterize the developmental trajectory of gratitude as it is experienced and as it affects behavior, and to document how feelings of gratitude are influenced by different social contexts and normative expectations.
Yarrow Dunham’s Lab
Peter Blake’s Lab

Naomi Eisenberger Naomi Eisenberger
Director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, University of California, Los Angeles

Project: "Giving Thanks: Is ‘Giving’ Key to the Health Benefits of Gratitude?"

Dr. Eisenberger’s study uses gene expression and brain scanning measures to examine some of the biological and neural underpinnings of gratitude.

Participants in her experiment will supply a blood sample and undergo a brain scan, then partake of either a six-week gratitude course, in which they’ll write about what they’re thankful for, or control training routine, during which they’ll write about something that is simply “nice.” After completing the courses, they will return for a second blood sample and brain scan. Dr. Eisenberger’s team will analyze the blood to examine expression of genes associated with bodily inflammation, as well as expression of genes that affect oxytocin, known for its role in pro-social processes like empathy and cooperation. The team will also examine brain activity as participants think about people they feel grateful toward, their favorite things, and familiar places.

In addition to examining biological metrics from each lab visit, Dr. Eisenberger hopes to compare the gene expression and brain activation data from before versus after the gratitude training program, in order to discover the effects of gratitude on biological markers of stress and pro-social processes. 

Thomas Gilovich Thomas Gilovich
Cornell University

Project: "Cultivating Gratitude in a Consumerist Society"

Dr. Gilovich’s project extends his previous work on the greater satisfaction people derive from experiential purchases (vacations, concerts, restaurant meals) than material purchases (clothes, televisions, furniture). With this new project, Gilovich and his team will: 1) examine whether experiential purchases inspire more gratitude than material purchases; 2) investigate the possibility of creating “virtuous cycles” whereby the enhanced gratitude brought about by initial experiential purchases leads to a less materialist orientation, which leads in turn to further gratitude, and so on; and 3) explore the psychological mechanisms responsible for any differential effects of experiential and material purchases on gratitude.

Using online surveys, laboratory experiments, and field studies, Gilovich’s team will address whether feeling grateful: makes participants more generous to, and trusting of, strangers; makes participants feel more connected to others and to such non-personal, grand entities as “the cosmos”; and tends to inhibit the accessibility of the individual self and enhance the accessibility of transcendent and spiritual constructs. Gilovich’s team will also have participants write about an especially satisfying experiential purchase or an especially satisfying material purchase, and examine whether the former tends to promote more gratitude and pro-social response than the latter.

Together, Gilovich’s studies will yield unprecedented insights into how focusing on experiences rather than material possessions relates to gratitude, and in turn, to sustained virtue, greater happiness, and meaningful positive interpersonal dynamics.

Jeff Huffman Jeff Huffman
Harvard Medical School

Project: "The Impact of Gratitude on Biology and Behavior in Persons with Heart Disease"

Jeff Huffman’s project examines gratitude in people recently suffering a common and prototypical medical event: an acute coronary syndrome (ACS—a heart attack or related condition). By examining links between gratitude, health behaviors, biomarkers, and outcomes, this study assessed the role that gratitude can play in the healing process following an acute illness.

Dr. Huffman’s team recruited people during their hospitalization for ACS. Participants attended clinic visits 2 weeks and 6 months their hospitalization. At these study visits, the researchers assessed levels of gratitude, drew blood for biomarkers, gathered baseline information about health behaviors critical to cardiac health, and obtained baseline measures of symptoms and function.  Biomarkers included measures of inflammation (interleukin-6; IL-6), cardiac cell damage (high sensitivity troponin T; hsTnT), endothelial dysfunction (vascular endothelial growth factor; VEGF), and overall cardiac prognosis (N-terminal pro-brain natriuretic peptide; NT-proBNP).  The six-month visit also included an objective measure of physical activity via an accelerometer (step counter) worn by the patient in the preceding two weeks.

Results from Huffman’s study suggest gratitude is linked to some important health outcomes, like health-related quality of life and adherence to health behaviors (like diet and exercise). His team also examined the effects of gratitude on biomarkers of health, and have finally explored the effects of other constructs like optimism, spirituality, anxiety and depression.  Indeed, some of these related states, such as optimism, also seem to play a role in health outcomes. 

An update from Huffman: “There is still much to explore from our study. We measured gratitude in several different ways, from dispositional/trait gratitude to more in-the-moment state gratitude.  We also examined different gratitude content areas, such as feeling grateful about being alive, gratitude toward family/friends, and gratitude toward care providers. However, we have not yet examined how these gratitude constructs evolve over a 6 month period in patients with a recent ACS and how they relate to one another. In addition, we have not investigated relationships between gratitude, optimism, spirituality, and lack of depression in this important clinical population. 

Furthermore, we have not explored WHICH gratitude construct may be most beneficial to health outcomes. We have also not examined other biomarkers of health but have samples to potentially examine additional biomarkers. Finally, we are now using gratitude-enhancing interventions and have yet to explore the effects of such interventions on psychological and health outcomes in patients with medical illness. There is still much to learn from our experience and data regarding the connections between gratitude and cardiovascular illness!”
Jeff Huffman’s Research Page

Andrea Hussong Andrea Hussong
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Project: "The Socialization of Gratitude through Parent-Child Interaction"

Dr. Hussong directs the Raising Grateful Children project that seeks to define gratitude in childhood and to examine the role that parents can play in fostering the development of children’s gratitude. Her team gathered insights about gratitude from focus groups of relatively privileged six to nine year olds (recruited from private schools) and their parents. The research team asked how parents and children recognize experiences and expressions of gratitude in young children and what parents do to foster gratitude and counter entitlement. Hussong’s team is focusing on privileged families because the presence of plenty in many of these families could easily create a sense of entitlement in children unless parents make conscious efforts to foster gratitude instead. The conscious attention to gratitude may make parents of privileged children one of many rich source of information on parental practices for fostering gratitude.

To be able to measure impact, Hussong’s team created much needed developmentally appropriate, reliable, and valid measures of gratitude for young children and the socialization of gratitude in children based on self-report, parent-report, and behavioral observations. They recruited 100 parent-child dyads to complete a lab visit when children were aged six to nine year olds in addition. Parents also completed a seven day diary of children’s gratitude and their parent socialization behaviors as well as a one month follow-up survey.  Initial findings indicate that parents hold incredibly varying beliefs about what gratitude looks like in children and how best to cultivate children’s gratitude.  They will use these data to test whether children are more grateful depending on how their parents model gratitude.  They also conducted observations work to test whether children’s gratitude is related to how parents talk to their children about their children’s experiences of gratitude and entitlement.  In addition, they developed surveys to assess how parents respond to their children’s entitled behavior and select activities for their children intended to foster gratitude.  Hussong’s team will use these measures to examine the association between gratitude and children’s positive outcomes. Together these data promise to bring newfound understanding to the role that parents can play in the development of children’s gratitude and further, to generally inform programs targeting character building and prosocial development in children.
Andrea Hussong’s Lab

Christina M. Karns Christina M. Karns
University of Oregon

Project: "The Grateful Brain: An fMRI study of Generosity and Social Agency following a Gratitude Intervention"

Dr. Christina Karns’s project will study the relationship between gratitude, social reasoning, decision-making, and the brain.

In the first phase of her research, she will examine whether people with more grateful personalities respond differently to everyday situations, and whether they make different decisions about whether and when to help other people. Dr. Karns’ previous research has focused on how malleable brain responses can be across the lifespan—how they are they shaped by external factors in the environment and by internal factors such as attention. The second phase of the current study will build on that work by asking if engagement in gratitude-focused exercises can change behavioral and brain responses to social scenarios and decisions about giving.

Dr. Karns’ innovative project includes the development a new library of gratitude eliciting experimental scenarios, behavioral measures of giving behavior, brain imaging measures, and a gratitude training regimen. It promises to advance the understanding of how gratitude relates to changes in key brain networks, potentially biasing the brain towards a mode of functioning that features heightened capacity for pleasure, particularly in relation to one’s connections with other people in life.

Debra Lieberman Debra Lieberman
University of Miami

Project: "Gratitude: A Basic Human Emotion for Initiating Friendships"

Debra Lieberman, with the University of Miami’s Michael McCullough, will explore the idea that our capacity to experience and express gratitude evolved for the very purpose of supporting the formation of deeply engaged friendships.

Evolutionary-minded scientists have developed robust theories to explain why prosociality evolved between close genetic relatives and social exchange partners, but humans also develop strong bonds with unrelated individuals whose interactions do not seem to be regulated by a close act-by-act reckoning of benefits bestowed and received (i.e., direct reciprocity). In short, humans have friends. Friends would have been valuable to have in ancestral environments, especially during dire times of need. For instance, just one additional person nurturing you back to health during an illness or supporting you during a social conflict could have had large fitness consequences.

But how to establish a friendship? Gratitude, Lieberman and McCullough claim, helps jump-start the initiation of friendships by signaling to another that he or she is valued. In essence, by expressing gratitude in response to another’s behavior—“Thank you for helping me fix my tire”—one is in effect saying “I value you.” This increase in value of one for another then has the opportunity to snowball into a close relationship.

Lieberman and McCullough will conduct four different studies to test the idea that gratitude evolved to jump-start friendships. Specifically, they will examine how an act of helping: 1) affects how each person values the other socially; 2) influences the feeling and expression of gratitude; and 3) motivates future deliveries of benefits. The team’s studies will also examine how each person’s “need state” (for example, how many trusted friends, how much social support each person has, how healthy each person is) influences the expression of gratitude and its social consequences.

Wendy Mendes Wendy Mendes
University of California, San Francisco

Project: "Effects of Measured and Manipulated Gratitude on Biomarkers of Health and Aging"

Dr. Wendy Mendes’ research study will examine whether trait levels of gratitude are related to better health outcomes, as indicated by key biomarkers related to stress, resilience and healthy aging, and examine whether this relationship is affected by other life factors like social support or (inversely) loneliness. Further, Mendes’s project examines the biological profile of real-time gratitude experience, by inducing gratitude and measuring physiology within the lab setting.

Mendes’s research team will recruit 180 healthy non-smokers between the ages of 35 and 60 to participate in a two-part study. First, recruits will complete a battery of online questionnaires to assess gratitude and other psychological factors of interest. Then participants will be scheduled for two lab visits with one week in between. During the first lab visit, research participants will get to watch a relaxing video, then engage in a series of clever, social psychological tasks that invoke gratitude and capture other aspects of interpersonal dynamics. Before the tasks, Mendes’s team will administer a nasal spray of either oxytocin, or an inert substance randomly split between half of the participants. During the tasks, Mendes’s team will monitor participants’ psychophysiological profiles from sensors attached to the body, and periodically collect spit samples (to assay cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone, an anabolic hormone implicated in affective resilience). One week later, the participants will return to the laboratory to undergo a fasting blood draw (in the morning, after 10 hours of no-eating), and then be supplied with a “home” study diary kit. The home study diary kit will contain supplies to obtain three saliva samples across two days, and involve keeping a daily diary using the trackyourhappiness.org software to monitor daily emotions and experiences of gratitude.

Mendes’s predictions? OT in the lab will increase the ease of experiencing gratitude as well as the strength of the experience and result in the greatest levels of healthy physiological reactivity, social warmth, positive and mutual trust. Furthermore, the blood of highly grateful people will reflect a less-stressed, healthier, more adaptive and gracefully aged profile.

Joel Meyers Joel Meyers
Georgia State University

Project: "A Model of Bullying Based on Gratitude and its Effects on Social Bonds"

Dr. Meyers will examine the relationship between gratitude and bullying, taking the perspectives of the bully, the victim, and the bystander into account. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that gratitude evolved to support the formation and maintenance of friendships, in part by promoting pro-social behaviors. Being a more grateful person may inherently reduce the impulse to bully during adolescence, a time when social hierarchy and status are of utmost importance. Researchers hypothesize that gratitude will improve mental health outcomes (i.e., less anxiety and depression) in victims of bullying by increasing social connectedness, forgiveness, and adaptive coping—in short, gratitude affords more resilience to being bullied. In bystanders, gratitude is hypothesized to increase helping behavior by increasing empathy and social connection and by decreasing moral disengagement—gratitude compels speaking up against witnessed bullying.

Working with a trailblazing afterschool program in place at eight different schools, Meyers’s team will collect a battery of measures from 1000 sixth and seventh graders from low socioeconomic, ethnic minority backgrounds six times over the course of two years. They will collect data to evaluate trait-level gratitude, personality dispositions, experience with bullying, anxiety, depression, and basic demographics. They will also gather school performance data from academic records. Meyers’s study uses a rigorous design (longitudinal design and growth curve modeling) that can address whether gratitude is causally related to bullying-related outcomes. Because bullying has been found to peak during middle school, it is important to learn about how these variables (i.e., gratitude, victimization, defender behavior, bullying, social connectedness, forgiveness, moral disengagement, empathy) work together to have effects on coping, responses to bullying and academic performance. Meyers’s team hopes to provide evidence that gratitude can reverse the tendency for bullying related conflict to escalate by repairing and strengthening relationships among students.

Laura Redwine Laura Redwine
University of California, San Diego

Project: "Gratitude in Pre-Symptomatic Heart Failure: Effects on Health-Related Physiological Outcomes and Clinical Disease Progression"

Dr. Redwine, with Paul J. Mills, will explore the relationship between gratitude and physical health in asymptomatic Stage B pre-heart failure (HF) patients. In two studies, the Redwine and Mills team aims to determine the role that gratitude plays in cardiovascular health and potential prevention of disease progression and explore whether gratitude can be enhanced to forestall the development of symptomatic Stage C HF.

They will recruit “high-risk” Stage B patients from seven different University of California, San Diego and VA San Diego cardiology clinics. At initial enrollment, and then at six and twelve month follow-up appointments, the Redwine and Mills team will assess BNP levels, a 6-minute walk test, neuroimmune and cardiovascular markers, behavioral and psychosocial assessments, and gratitude—to see if trait-level gratitude predicts a healthier disease progression. HF patients will be invited to participate in a study of gratitude journaling (writing lists of things for which that individual is grateful). Participating patients will be instructed to journal their gratitude “most days” for eight weeks. Redwine and Mills will collect the full physical health assessment before, immediately after and at four and ten months after the gratitude journaling intervention.

Results from this study will help us to better understand how the practice of gratitude may protect and potentially augment cardiovascular functioning in an at-risk population. The specific physiological measures will elucidate more precisely the pathways associated with gratitude’s effects both on reducing negative affect and stress, and enhancing positive affect and well-being, and relating these pathways to clinical outcomes in heart failure patients. These results could have significant impact not only on future research on gratitude but also potentially on clinical practice of cardiology patients. Should gratitude journaling show promise for enhancing well-being and clinical outcomes in Stage B patients, it would be fairly simple to implement in cardiology settings.
More about Redwine & Mills’s research

Kristin Shutts Kristin Shutts
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Project: "Effects of Prosocial Gestures on Children’s Social Attitudes and Expressions of Gratitude"

Beginning in early childhood, people show limited willingness to befriend and be generous toward some members of society. For example, children’s decisions about whom to play with or when to share or help others reflect biases related to race and social class.

Dr. Shutts’s project asks: Can gratitude reduce social prejudice and promote children’s interest in relationships with people from diverse backgrounds? Her study examines whether being the recipient of helpful gestures from others can change children’s social attitudes, and inspire future expressions of gratitude toward people from diverse backgrounds. To do this, Shutts will assess children’s social attitudes and then have them play a computer game in which they receive help from unfamiliar people. Who the helpers are (e.g., whether they are black or white), and whether the helpers help on purpose or accidentally, will vary. After the game, Shutts will assess children’s attitudes again, and also measure children’s expressions of gratitude.

Her hypothesis is that being the recipient of intentional help will lead to more positive attitudes and greater willingness to be grateful towards people who are similar to those who provided help during the game.
Kristin Shutt’s Lab

Frans de Waal Frans de Waal
Emory University

Project: "Gratitude and Partner Preference in Chimpanzee Cooperation"

Frans de Waal’s research team is studying chimpanzee reciprocity more naturalistically, and in greater detail than ever before. The main question they want to address: Do apes remember past interactions with others and regulate their own cooperative behavior on the basis of these?

De Waal’s team will examine the behaviors of 30 chimpanzees that live in two large outdoor-housed groups. To capture their gratitude, the researchers will present a task in which two or three chimpanzees can secure rewards through cooperative action. By presenting this task multiple times, the scientists will be able to compare spontaneous chimpanzee partner choices with past records of cooperation. They will also track other social interactions, such as grooming, as well as non-cooperative behavior, such as taking rewards from other individuals without having helped secure them (free-loading).

One of de Waal’s experiments will include food rewards, such as a watermelon, that are too large for a single chimpanzee. Chimpanzees frequently share food, so such rewards test if chimpanzees share more with those who have helped them secure the reward. This approach is designed to reproduce a situation like group hunting and meat sharing known to occur in the wild. De Waal’s team will conduct detailed analyses of thousands of videotaped interactions to assess whether chimpanzees remember and reciprocate favors, whether reciprocity facilitates the establishment of close social relationships, and whether chimpanzees share rewards more easily with those who have helped them secure these rewards.

These studies will track naturalistic cooperation and reciprocity in detail over time to characterize the role of chimpanzee gratitude, the feelings they feel toward others that have worked with and helped them secure rewards in the recent past, in overall chimpanzee pro-social tendencies.

Joel Wong Joel Wong
Indiana University Bloomington

Project: "The Use of a Gratitude Writing Intervention With Psychotherapy for Outpatient Clients"

Multiple studies show that programs for strengthening gratitude can change things for the better. With Joshua Brown, Joel Wong aims to discover why practicing gratitude works. What are the underlying mechanisms of gratitude-related changes? Looking at neural, social (the therapeutic alliance), emotional, and cognitive processes (positive reappraisal), Wong and Brown’s studies will examine the effects that gratitude expression has on mental health and brain function.

For their first study, they will recruit 300 people just before their intake appointments at local psychotherapy clinics, and randomly assign them to one of three conditions: gratitude writing and psychotherapy, expressive writing and psychotherapy, or psychotherapy only. People in the two writing conditions will be asked to write continuously for 20 minutes on three occasions, either writing letters expressing gratitude to other people, or writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings about their most stressful experiences. Before any of the writing and twice thereafter, Wong and Brown will solicit responses to a battery of questionnaires about gratitude and health. With these and the written data, they will examine the impact of gratitude expression on constructs like theraputic alliance, positive and negative affect and coping, social word use and mental health. Sixty of the 300 people will be invited to participate in a second, fMRI study—30 from the gratitude letter writing condition and 30 from the psychotherapy only group. In the fMRI study, people will play a Pay it Forward game (e.g. you can pass on a gift from the last person, etc.) and the researchers will measure whether neural activation reflects peoples’ previous gratitude expression practice. They might, for instance, see greater activation in neural reward circuits in the gratitude letter writers when pay it forward, or more activity in conflict and arousal processing areas when people withhold gratitude.

Through these experiments, Wong and Brown hope to shed light on how gratitude practice changes emotional, cognitive, social and biological processes in a manner than benefits mental health.

Moving forward, Wong and Brown are interested in examining which specific types of gratitude expressions (intrapersonal vs. interpersonal; specific vs. generic; recent vs. distant past, etc.) are associated with optimal mental health outcomes.
Joel Wong’s Lab

 

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