Giacomo Bono looked into the cold, hardened face of his uncle. Just 12 years old, Bono had gone with his father all the way back to Italy to patch up a dispute with his uncle over a family inheritance. But his uncle wanted nothing to do with either of them.
“His face stuck in my head, stuck in my mind,” recalls Bono. “Really, you want to die rigid like that, thinking you’re right rather than feeling the love of your own blood?”
A decade later, as a graduate student, Bono gravitated to the topic of apology and forgiveness. The experience with his uncle had left an impression on him, and he wanted to understand how people reconcile and heal their relationships.
“[Unforgiveness] seems like a terrible burden to carry around,” he says. “It’s like you stop living.”
Ultimately, his research uncovered some of the destructive potential of not forgiving. He found that less forgiveness goes hand in hand with rumination, for example, and that people who are more avoidant and vengeful on a given day have lower well-being the next day.
But Bono isn’t known as a forgiveness researcher these days. After receiving his Ph.D., he began to study gratitude, which he sees as the other side of the coin. While forgiveness deals with the difficult side of relationships—when things go wrong—Bono also wanted to explore what happens when things go right.
Finding gratitude outside the lab
Bono’s first intense gratitude experience came in the unlikeliest of places: a hospital bed. At the age of nine, he suffered from a severe case of encephalitis and eventually fell into a coma. Doctors warned his parents that he might never walk again.
But he did walk—and he attributes that to the people around him. During his week-long hospital stay and the physical therapy that followed, they encouraged him and kept him focused on the future. They brought him pizza and his first chocolate shake, which—after days without regular food—were serious cause for gratitude.
With this experience in mind, and gratitude research taking off, Bono eventually turned his eye to studying grateful kids. In the past decade, he has uncovered many benefits of gratitude in youth, including more helpful behavior, less negative emotions and depression, and greater positive emotions, hope, happiness, life satisfaction, and sense of meaning in life. To help students unlock some of these benefits, Bono and his collaborators recently created a whole gratitude curriculum for teachers, including practices like the gratitude journal and gratitude letter.
In gratitude experiments, a gratitude activity is sometimes compared to a “hassles” activity, where participants list daily hassles they experience. Even though he’s well acquainted with this research, Bono admits that he sometimes has trouble seeing past the hassles in his own life.
Earlier this year, for example, Bono’s wife was traveling, his two kids were on vacation from school, and he was preparing for the upcoming semester at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where he is an assistant professor. That week, he was all too aware of his hassles list: dealing with customer service agents, cleaning the garage, sorting through a tornado of office files.
But one morning, Bono found a more grateful perspective. His nine-year-old son was humming as they walked to school together, happy and excited to see his friends after the break. When they arrived, Bono watched him walk away and had that spontaneous feeling of deep gratitude.
“I thought, ‘I’m so grateful for having this loving child who gets the value of friends, who loves his teachers.’ All the sudden, my frustration from the week before just completely fell away in my feeling grateful for my son—and for school starting back up, thank God for that, too!” he recalls, laughing. “That’s how gratitude works.”
Those spontaneous feelings can be hard to come by, of course. Perhaps that’s why pioneering gratitude researcher Robert Emmons recommends practicing the actions of gratitude—smiling, saying thank you, writing letters—even if the feeling isn’t there yet. “If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered,” he writes.
That’s an approach Bono takes to heart. Gratitude doesn’t exactly come naturally to him, but his research has taught him how to work at it—and how powerful it can be.
A connected life
In the end, Bono’s uncle passed away without reconciling with all of his siblings—a fate that Bono wants to avoid at all costs. “He ended up dying angry, bitter,” he says. “I want to die knowing that I had love and that I gave love and that my influence will live on positively.”
Although his uncle’s actions hurt him, Bono did walk away from the experience with a greater admiration for his father. Looking at the situation now with a researcher’s eyes, he assumes his father—who tried so hard to bring the family back together—must be a highly forgiving person.
Studying uplifting experiences of gratitude and forgiveness also means studying their opposites—the times in life when we feel far from grateful, and the people we can’t bring ourselves to forgive. All this has made Bono more aware of the beauty and fragility of life.
“I’m more sensitive to suffering and how quickly we can grow out of suffering if we can find hope,” says Bono. “I continue to admire resilience more and more.”