Yuyi Morales Hola Nancy, do you remember me? I could never forget you. Thank you.
Kai Koerber Dear Ma, thank you is how every letter I write to you should begin.
Kai Koerber’s Mother My dear son. Love, you taught me what that was.
Laura Formentini: Dear brother, Assefa. I wanted to let you know that when I think about you, I remember your hand holding my hand, which was shaking that day. I remember your smile throughout the day. It’s like I had known you forever.
Dacher Keltner How can we focus on the things we’re most thankful for? What are the best ways to express our gratitude?
I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness. On each episode of our show we have a guest try a science-backed method to bring more happiness into their life. And over the years we’ve looked at various ways to cultivate gratitude, like writing someone a letter or journaling about what we’re thankful for each day.
People who practice gratitude feel less depressed, more optimistic about life and they have stronger relationships. There’s also a host of health benefits, which we’ll hear about more later on in the show.
Let’s start with one of my favorite ways to practice gratitude—writing a gratitude letter to someone we want to thank.
Yuyi Morales Hola Nancy, do you remember me? I could never forget you.
Dacher Keltner Yuyi Morales is an award-winning children’s book author. When she came to the United States from Mexico, she spoke no English but found a friend in Nancy, the local librarian.
Yuyi Morales True, at first I might have been scared of you, guardian at your desk, and too close to the basket of baby books that my son always walked towards when we entered this unbelievable place: the children’s book section of the Western Addition Public Library.
Dacher Keltner Yuyi wrote a Gratitude Letter for Nancy and shared it with us on our show.
Yuyi Morales Nancy was—I mean, she probably doesn’t know it, but how important she is in my life. She allowed me to feel that what a library has to do, was for me too.
It wasn’t only for the people who was born here in the United States. It wasn’t only for people who spoke English. It was also for someone like me—who didn’t understand. Someone who still feared that a place like that wasn’t for someone like me. She, like many librarians I’ve gotten to meet, who are really my heroes, the way that they do their job is to let you know that the library is for everybody.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. I wanted to get your thoughts on what it was like to read your gratitude letter, and to use your voice to thank Nancy.
Yuyi Morales I always felt very emotional about the role that the library had played in my life. And then I had to write this letter and realized that the emotion is still there. The feelings and the gratitude and how this amazing thing happened—it is still there. So writing this letter made me feel that this is not only a history for me. This is an essential part of how I even live now, and the things I am doing nowadays. This is still very alive.
Dacher Keltner A space far away, but it’s still in you.
Yuyi Morales Yeah. Exactly.
Sara Algoe Well, the gratitude letter was one of the first successful, I would say, ways that were documented to really make people happier.
Dacher Keltner Here to talk about the science and the research behind the gratitude letter practice is Sarah Algoe, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and a longtime friend and dear collaborator.
Sara Algoe The researchers recruited people who wanted to become happier and they randomly assigned them to one of a series of activities. Some of the people were randomly assigned to write a gratitude letter and they were supposed to write this letter to someone who had been especially kind but was never properly thanked.
Other people wrote about early childhood memories over the course of the week. So what they found was that the people in the gratitude condition actually had greater happiness and fewer depressive symptoms one week and a month later. It was pretty cool.
Stephen Leeper Students had to write down things that they’re grateful for and have like a physical record of that that they can go back to and reference.
Dacher Keltner Stephen Leeper was a junior high school teacher in San Francisco, California when he had his students do the gratitude journal practice for our show.
Stephen Leeper And I really encourage depth over breadth, like you don’t have to answer a hundred things that you’re grateful for. Briefly, it’s better to focus on a few different things that you’re grateful for, and just go deep there and then kind of sit with that and explore that.
Stephen Leeper’s Student Once my Mamita Noor died, I started writing all the good memories that I had of her. It’s helping me, I’d say, because it’s not letting me think about the bad. I could write why I’m so thankful and I have gratitude towards this person, and what they’ve done in their lifetime with me.
Dacher Keltner What did it teach the kids to do this exercise?
Stephen Leeper I think it taught them to reach deep. To think about, in the midst of all of the things that you have to complain about that aren’t going your way—what is going your way, and what is sustaining you right now? Like, you’re still here. You’re physically here. You’re emotionally here. You’re present. And why is that? What sustains you?
What keeps you going? And I think that their realizing can really have an effect on their mood and how they feel. And to also be aware that moods are states that are transient, they’re temporary. You can feel one way now, but then when you think about something you’re grateful for, or think about something that makes you happy, it can completely change your mood.
Kendall Cotton Bronk Gratitude really hinges on individuals being able to engage in perspective-taking. So we need to be able to understand another person’s thoughts, what’s going through somebody else’s mind.
Dacher Keltner Kendall Cotton Bronk is an associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California.
Kendall Cotton Bronk The second thing is that gratitude really hinges on an individual’s ability to empathize or experience another person’s emotions. And, both empathy and perspective taking really develop across childhood. So it’s the beginning of adolescence where these things sort of coalesce and young people are really developmentally prepared to experience gratitude and experience the benefits associated with gratitude.
Jeffrey Froh Grateful kids are happier, they’re much more satisfied with their lives. They also report more optimism and also more contentment. Less depression, less envy, higher GPA. So it’s like this laundry list of positive outcomes when you have a grateful mindset.
Dacher Keltner Jeffrey Froh is a psychology professor at Hofstra University in New York. His research finds that when gratitude is part of school curriculums and environments, kids feel grateful for longer and are more inclined to act on that gratitude.
Jeffrey Froh Gratitude is social Krazy Glue. When you express it to somebody, you let them know that you value them, that you respect them, that you trust them, that you appreciate the very thing that they did, that you acknowledge that they went out of their way for you. Just that there alone increases the bond. It’s an expression of love.
Sriram Shamasunder I got vaccinated on a Sunday. And so I wrote about just the health workers that were working on a Sunday.
Dacher Keltner Sometimes we can feel gratitude for people we don’t even know.
Sriram Shamasunder There’s one entry that I wrote that says: for the workers who worked on a Sunday, for the unseen hands who created a vaccine in record speed, for the patients who never made it to the vaccine…
Dacher Keltner Sriram Shamasunder is an Associate Professor of Medicine at UC San Francisco. Sri kept a journal where he reflected on what he was grateful for each day.
Sriram Shamasunder And even, like, the tree outside my house is a guest and is a great refuge for the many birds and the ants and the squirrels as it stretches into the sky. So just even the noticing of things that I know are in the background, but noticing just the other beings that exist with us on this planet and where they’re taking refuge in this moment.
So I got out a new journal, I cracked a new journal. Trying to be at the same time every day, I would just write for about five or ten minutes.
Dacher Keltner We know these practices of gratitude, you know, they elevate vagal tone. They make you feel more optimistic. You handle stress better. But I’m really curious, as you did this over time, what arose in your mind and how did those images and associations build over time?
Sriram Shamasunder The act of writing kind of carried and the act of naming the gratitudes carried into the next day and the next, where I became more aware of things in my life that I should cherish in the moment, or I became aware that, you know, when my kid is laughing like how precious that is or just walking around the block, paying attention to things. It was almost like a muscle was growing in terms of all the things that I kind of passively am grateful for in my life, it became more of an active thing where throughout the day when something happened, I would take it in with much more awareness. And I think that was almost like a coach who’s unveiling or holding up a mirror to your life in a way that you have these already inside of you. But the act of writing kind of drew it out more and more.
Dacher Keltner You know, William James, one of our great founding psychologists in the U.S. wrote about consciousness as a lens, you know, and I just feel so much of the happiness practices that we talk about is like you get this lens and then it starts to sharpen and you see things that come into a little bit more focus.
Sriram Shamasunder Yeah. I think in some ways we’re just being programmed evolutionarily towards some things that make us fearful or negative sometimes in our mind, like the critical or the negative kind of arise as a point of focus. And I think that’s very true, that the more you focus on gratitude, the more you focus on the practice of gratitude in a very active way, as opposed to in a very passive way, that muscle grows. And I think that that’s the start of what I’m seeing in my own life.
Dacher Keltner The heart is the hardest working muscle in the body, pumping out two ounces of blood per heart beat. The emotions we cultivate affect how it functions.
Up next, we’ll hear how gratitude can affect our hearts and our overall health.
Laura Redwine Will that reduce our stress levels? Will it allow us to rest more and allow our hearts to rest, particularly in people who have a lot of heart disease?
Dacher Keltner We’ll also look at the evolution of gratitude. More after this break.
I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
It’s tempting to think of gratitude as a purely human emotion, but there are clues to its evolutionary roots in some of our closest relatives.
One of my heroes is the primatologist Jane Goodall. And after decades of her team observing chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania, they found that chimpanzees show behaviors resembling human emotions—emotions like humor, awe, jealousy, and gratitude.
Our senior producer Shuka Kalantari learned more about chimp gratitude when she visited the zoo in Oakland, California for a special we produced on The Science of Gratitude back in 2015.
Adrienne Mrsny We have three boys and four girls. Two of the girls are a mother daughter pair.
Shuka Kalantari Adrienne Mercnee is a Zoologist at the Oakland Zoo. She takes care of seven chimpanzees.
Shuka Kalantari I think your alpha male may have spit on us.
Adrienne Mrsny It was Caramia. That’s her, “You’re here too early in the morning, I haven’t woken up yet, go away!”
Shuka Kalantari The chimps spit fight, play, and often show gratitude towards one another. For example, one chimpanzee will share her food as a thank you to another for getting groomed earlier that day.
Adrienne Mrsny The gratitude they show is just so natural and genuine. And it’s there. It’s ingrained. It’s part of their culture and part of the species and how they work as a social group.
Frans de Waal That means that the mechanism of gratitude, the mental calculations that we have when we’re grateful for things that we’ve received from others—that those calculations are very old.
Shuka Kalantari Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta is one of the world’s leading primatologists. He studies chimpanzees in the wild.
Frans de Waal You take very careful measures: who grooms whom for how long and so on. And the chimpanzees at that point don’t know what’s going to happen that day. But then later in the day, a couple of hours later, we introduce food.
Shuka Kalantari Like a couple of watermelons, much more than one chimp can eat alone.
Frans de Waal And they start breaking them apart and handing out pieces and letting others reach in and take pieces from them. Then, we measure who takes food from whom.
Shuka Kalantari In one study, De Waal measured over seven thousand food interactions between chimps. He found they share more with individuals who groomed them. DEWAll claims that says a lot about the evolution of gratitude.
Frans de Waal People sometimes postulate these things like gratitude or forgiveness or whatever it is, morality—that they are human innovations and they may be more refined and sophisticated in our species. That’s very well possible, so they’re more developed maybe. But they’re not brand new. They’re not something that we came up with.
Dacher Keltner We’ve been talking about how things like writing a letter of thanks to someone or journaling about what we’re grateful for can bring us more happiness. But it can also bring better health, as the two are undeniably intertwined.
That’s the sound of a healthy heartbeat. And this is the sound of an unhealthy one.
Researchers at UC San Diego were concerned with the latter. They wanted to see if having a more grateful mindset could not only improve mental health but be good for heart health as well. They brought in about 200 people to their lab who were recently diagnosed with heart disease.
Laura Redwine Either they’ve had a heart attack, they have valvular disease, or they have untreated hypertension. These can lead to a very bad outcome of heart failure.
Dacher Keltner Laura Redwine led the study. She’s an associate professor in the college of nursing at the University of South Florida. Her team first measured how grateful these 200 people were.
Laura Redwine So, we wanted to know whether people who naturally have a lot of gratitude: what they look like, what is their psychological profile, what behaviors are they doing? How is their sleep? What are their biological stress hormones?
DK They also checked people’s depression levels, their mood, and how well they slept.
Dacher Keltner Half the group was assigned to do a gratitude journal for eight weeks, and the other half did nothing, just like life as normal.
Laura Redwine What we found was that gratitude was actually related to better sleep. They actually did have less depressed mood, less fatigue, even their behaviors for self-care, healthy behaviors were better.
Dacher Keltner The people who didn’t journal had no signs of a healthier heart after the eight week study.
Laura Redwine Even when people are sick or have heart disease, if they can change their perspective and look at those things, what are they grateful for? Or who are they grateful for? It’s good to call attention to those things rather than ruminating or thinking about negative things that could happen and never do or thinking about the past. I mean, gratitude also brings us, I think, into the present moment. And that’s a good thing.
Dacher Keltner One way to refine these ancient emotions like forgiveness, kindness and gratitude is through practice. No Pulitzer Prize winning author mastered their book in the first draft. It takes time, and reworking. We just highlighted two ways to bring more gratitude into our lives: writing someone a letter or keeping a daily journal. But there are dozens if not hundreds of other gratitude practices, like writing about three good things that happened that day, and why.
Kendall Cotton Bronk Gratitude is really sort of all encompassing and it includes both the thoughts about gratitude and the interpretations and also the expressions of gratitude.
Dacher Keltner That’s Kendall Cotton Bronk, the psychology professor from Claremont Graduate University we heard from earlier. In one experiment she had a group of people write about something somebody did for them they were grateful for.
Another group wrote about three good things that happened to them that day. And then the third group wrote a gratitude letter. Then, they had everyone try all three of the gratitude exercises.
Kendall Cotton Bronk So we wondered if rolling all of these activities up into one might encourage, sort of, a fuller sense of gratitude.
Dacher Keltner Kendall’s team found that this more integrated approach, which still took less than 20 minutes for most people to complete, led participants to a deeper experience of gratitude.
Kendall Cotton Bronk We also found that these activities encouraged not only gratitude but also hope and a desire to give back to the world beyond the self.
Dacher Keltner The gratitude letter and other other happiness practices that we talk about here on The Science of Happiness, and that I teach in my happiness course at UC Berkeley, can be found on our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu
As always, tell us what worked best for you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about your favorite gratitude ritual.
I’m Dacher Keltner, this is the Science of Happiness, and thank you for being a part of our show. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our Associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo at BMP Audio. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.