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Dr. Robert Emmons on Gratitude

Dr. Robert Emmons on Gratitude

Robert Emmons, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of California, Davis. He’s one of the leading scholars in the positive psychology movement. He is also the editor in chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Emmons shares his insights on the first 30 days of being happier.

How can gratitude help someone while they are going through change?

Gratefulness is really an approach to life. You view things in your life as gifts or potential gifts, so that opens the door to how you view things that happen to you, like change. You will not necessarily view those changes as threats or losses, but as potential gains, as opportunities and gifts.

How do grateful people respond to life?

Well, they tend to be more optimistic. They tend to be more hopeful. They don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in what they don’t have or believing that they are victims of circumstances. They aren’t pointing fingers, blaming other people for what’s happening in their lives. They’ll talk about their lives as being full of gifts and givers, and being blessed, and being fortunate, and so on. They traffic the language of gratitude, as I like to frame it.

How do people change their mindsets in the midst of change from blame and resentfulness to gratefulness?

That’s a challenge. When we go through loss or adversity it’s hard to develop a feeling of gratefulness, because when things are going poorly, the last thing we probably feel is grateful. I think it’s important to distinguish between feeling grateful and having an attitude of gratefulness towards life, which is a broader perspective that can get us through these times, so that we look back upon them and see them as potential gifts.

More specifically, I’d probably recommend engaging in some sort of mental exercise that asks, “is there something in this situation that I might feel grateful for in some small way?” Find some place to start, right where you are, and ask yourself, “is there something that I can do to feel grateful? I don’t have to, but I can if I want to. It might make me feel better and it certainly won’t do any harm.”

Do we need to be grateful to someone in particular?

Well, “grateful” implies there’s some giver, that you’re receiving a benefit or something good. I’d like to think of it as the recognition of goodness and acknowledgement that you have good things in your life. So, that does imply that there is some other. Some people might attribute their goodness to God; [some could attribute it] to other people. I think the idea is that there are some good things that are intentionally being given to them for their benefit. There is a wide variety of potential sources or targets that we might give thanks to, but not ourselves. It would be a little unusual to say, “I’m grateful to myself,” because gratitude does require an outward person to whom you direct this feeling of thankfulness.

Can someone become more grateful in 30 days? How does one begin?

I really do think it’s a habit that could take time, particularly if you’re a person who has a tendency to take things for granted or have difficulty expressing gratefulness. Many people, especially men, have a hard time perceiving that they need the help of other people. It almost implies a sense of dependency. They couldn’t do it themselves, and they need to rely on other people. That can be a very uncomfortable feeling for people to acknowledge. It takes a little bit more time to do so, because there are more obstacles in those cases. We find the practice of keeping a journal helps. And in the book I discussed lots of other ways in which you can learn to be grateful too, but you’re trying to overcome a long-standing disposition of not acknowledging gratefulness. It’s going to take a lot longer than it would for someone who was already predisposed to it, because they are more optimistic, or hopeful, or spiritual. These people have these qualities that I mentioned earlier, that seem to underlie a sense of gratefulness.

What role can a gratitude journal play?

It increases an awareness. It focuses your attention so that you notice blessings, whereas you previously might have noticed a curse, or a hassle. You might call that mindfulness. I think the journal is a good tool, because the journal forces you to make your thoughts very concrete by writing them down, where you can focus on them and elaborate on them, and post them somewhere conspicuously so that you can see them.

What was the biggest surprise for you in the research you did and in writing this book?

The effect seemed to be so immediate. When you start to grow gratitude in your life, the benefit seems to be so wide, it’s not simply that you feel better or happier—although that’s certainly legitimate—but the fact is that there are interpersonal benefits. You feel more connected to others. You feel a greater sense of obligation to go out and do something that’s useful or beneficial. You sleep better. The benefits just seem limitless, when you practice gratitude.



What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

That this change is temporary. This will pass.

The best thing about change is…

…that it gives me a chance to grow and deepen myself as an individual.

What is the best change you have ever made?

I believe it was when I became a Christian as an adult, about twelve years ago.

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