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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.

Yarrow Dunham Yarrow Dunham
Princeton University

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

Dr. Dunham and Dr. Peter Blake of Boston University are collaborating on a series of studies that examine the developmental emergence of gratitude in four- to nine-year-old children.

One study will aim to identify the developmental capacities that enable or impede gratitude in children. Dunham and Blake will invite children to the lab and give them gifts (e.g., a stuffed animal) left for them by another, anonymous child who had been there earlier. Each gift will come with a note from the giver saying that the gift was given either out of generous free will or out of obligation (e.g., “my mom said I had to”). They will measure children’s feelings about the gift and the giver, and then observe children’s willingness to be generous towards the gift giver, as well towards another person during a separate sharing game. This will allow them to examine whether children experience more gratitude when they receive gifts that were voluntarily given, something that has previously been observed in adults.

In another study, they will examine how children’s retelling of their own stories about times which they felt grateful, happy or calm affect their willingness to give away coveted stickers—this will clarify whether gratitude uniquely affects children’s inclination to be generous compared to more general positive emotions such as happiness. Towards their second aim, Dunham and Blake will examine how emphasizing specific social norms with children (e.g., “you must share equally with everyone here”) affects their experience of gratitude after receiving gifts. Might strong rules requiring sharing actually undercut gratitude by leading children to interpret gifts they receive as non-voluntarily given? 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.

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 will assess the role that gratitude can play in the healing process following an acute illness.

Dr. Huffman’s team will recruit at least 150 people during their hospitalization for ACS. Participants will attend clinic visits 2 weeks and 6 months their hospitalization. At these study visits, the researchers will assess levels of gratitude, draw blood for biomarkers, gather baseline information about health behaviors critical to cardiac health, and obtain baseline measures of symptoms and function.  Biomarkers will include 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 will also include an objective measure of physical activity via an accelerometer (step counter) worn by the patient in the preceding two weeks.

Dr. Huffman’s team hypothesizes that higher levels of gratitude two weeks post-ACS will be prospectively associated with better outcomes at six months. Specifically, they expect patients who were more grateful at two weeks to have more normal levels of biomarkers, greater participation in health behaviors, and superior health-related quality of life (HRQoL)/function, independent of other factors. This is the first study to examine key links between gratitude and factors critical to health in medically ill persons. Findings from this project could represent a substantial breakthrough and may prompt greater study of this potentially critical connection in other medical settings and conditions.  Furthermore, if gratitude is associated with superior behavioral and biological outcomes in this vulnerable medical cohort, the findings could serve as a platform to propose and complete next-step studies to determine whether a targeted gratitude-enhancing intervention leads to improved function and survival in persons with medical conditions.

Andrea Hussong Andrea Hussong
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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

Dr. Hussong’s project 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 will begin by gathering insights about gratitude from focus groups of relatively privileged six to nine year olds (recruited from private schools) and their parents. The research team will ask how parents and children recognize experiences and expressions of gratitude in young children and what parents do to foster gratitude and counter entitlement. They are particularly interested in the conversations that parents have with their children about gratitude, the experiences they create for their children to experience gratitude, and the way that parents intentionally model gratitude for their children.

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 will create 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-repor, and behavioral observations. To capture some behavior, the researchers will recruit a group of six to nine year olds and their parents to visit the lab. During these laboratory visits, the researchers will examine whether parents modeling of grateful behavior impacts how strongly and how often children experience and express gratitude themselves. They will also observe parents’ responses to children’s expressions of gratitude, assess whether parents create opportunities for children to experience and express gratitude, and examine whether how parents reflect on experiences of giving and receiving with their children impact children’s subsequent expressions of 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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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