Gratefulness equals happiness

Visiting professor links wellness to positive thinking

UC Davis professor Robert A. Emmons is at the forefront of a branch of psychology that uses positive thinking to promote emotional and physical wellness.

UC Davis professor Robert A. Emmons is at the forefront of a branch of psychology that uses positive thinking to promote emotional and physical wellness.

Photo courtesy of uc davis

“You can’t be grateful and not be happy.”

Speaking was Robert A. Emmons, a UC Davis professor of psychology. We were sitting at a table in Selvester’s Café by the Creek at Chico State. “Gratefulness is a sure route to happiness,” he added.

Emmons, the university’s President’s Visiting Scholar this fall, was taking a half-hour pit stop out of his busy three-day visit to the campus Oct. 27-29 to share his ideas on the positive health consequences of practicing gratitude regularly in one’s life. The visit included speaking to Enloe Medical Center’s Planetree organization and at a Chico State graduate-level social-work seminar on Oct. 27, and giving a public talk on Oct. 28 titled “Gratitude and Emotional Prosperity During Trying Times.”

“For decades, psychology ignored the positive, with almost exclusive emphasis on the negative,” said Emmons, who is in the forefront of a relatively new (approximately 10 years old) field of study called “positive psychology,” which focuses on promoting emotional wellness as opposed to treating disorder.

He has written numerous scholarly articles and several books—including Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier—on the subject of gratitude and happiness. A recent research project conducted by Emmons and a colleague from the University of Miami found that people who expressed gratitude regularly by means of a “gratitude journal”—basically a list of things, no matter how small or ordinary, for which they were thankful—were more satisfied with their lives, more optimistic, and in better physical health, among other things, than those who did not.

“Some people may be surprised by the range of findings,” offered Emmons. “Psychologically, relationally, physically and spiritually, they may have underestimated the benefit of gratitude for, say, a patient or client. There’s still a fair amount of skepticism [among mental-health professionals].”

“People’s blood pressure lowers when practicing gratitude,” said Emmons, “and they sleep longer and better. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll lose more weight if you keep a gratitude journal—the journal will cultivate mindfulness. You’ll be more focused in the present; you’ll become more aware of what you put into your body, versus being on ‘autopilot’ and just grabbing anything [to eat]. You will start to see your body as a gift … and you will take better care of it.”

The gratitude-equals-happiness equation also results in the release of naturally occurring, pleasure-inducing chemicals in the body, such as dopamine and serotonin, that make a person simply feel better—and the shutting-off of stress hormones such as cortisol, which contributes to stress-related illnesses such as weight gain, insomnia, depression and cardiovascular disease.

“For thousands of years, spiritual and devotional writers have discussed the power of thankfulness,” said Emmons, who besides being a scientist is also a practicing Christian. “It’s a very old topic, yet we can confirm … it with the technologies of today.”

Emmons stressed that “developing a practice that works for you is the most important step—a ritual: a journal, prayers, writing poetry, painting. … No ‘one size fits all’—it’s the same as physical exercise. Not everyone runs or bikes or does yoga.”

“It’s important to know that gratitude can be a chosen attitude,” Emmons added. “It’s independent of life circumstance. It’s very freeing to know that, and get control over our emotional life. The only thing we have control over is our reaction to life circumstances.

“The bottom line is,” Emmons summed up, “gratitude is the best approach to life. It gives you the perspective to deal with stress…to see ‘the gift in the curse’ [during difficult times], and if things are going well, you can really savor it.”