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What Research Says About Gratitude

Robert A. Emmons talks about the definition of gratitude and how it can impact our health and well-being.
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<v ->Gratitude Works!</v>
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So here’s my title: Gratitude Works! How Gratitude Heals, Energizes, and Changes Lives.
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Basically two decades right? Let me summarize that. How do you summarize two decades in about 35-40 minutes? Well, here’s a statement that I have made recently and it’s a declarative statement but of course, to be more scientifically appropriate one should phrase that in terms of a question, you know so is gratitude the deepest touchpoint of human existence? Well, I’m actually going to suggest that it is. I think we have the empirical evidence to support that, that claim to, so to, I’ve been trying to, you know, to declare and demonstrate that this is true. Now, if I were you, if I was hearing this for the first time, I would think something like, you know, “What?”
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“How can that be the deepest touchpoint of human existence? “I mean, what does that even mean “to say that something is a deep touch point?” Well, that’s what we’re gonna try to unpack with you and for you today.
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I think gratitude is really fundamental and foundational to what it means to be a person. And if we ignore that, I think we leave out something very very important about what it means to live and to function at an optimal level, to lead our best lives, to lead a life of well-being, of flourishing, of happiness and all of those things. So that’s, I say all that by way of introduction just to set the stage for what it is that I do why study this and why I think it’s important. Now we’ll kind of gradually get into the science of gratitude. First of all, what it is. Okay, that’s a good place to start right?
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Well, you should always start at the beginning and the beginning is telling people what do you mean by gratitude? I think we tend to think of in terms of two words. Okay, right? Thank you and that’s what being grateful is, right? Just being, being thankful, seeing the good, giving thanks to people or for things in your life, appreciating the good. Well psychologist, you may know this, you may not, but now you do. We have a way of muddying the waters very quickly, taking things which on the surface seem very straightforward and clear cut and making them very complex and gratitude is no exception, so I shan’t disappointed you.
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So let me give you a more technical definition of what gratitude is. And I like to think about it in terms of two stages of information processing. First of all, it’s an information or rather it’s an affirmation of goodness. So basically just me saying yes to life, seeing the good, noticing the good, focusing on the good, taking in the good, right? The good could be in ourselves, it could be in other people, what people are doing for us, it could in the world. So focusing on the good, saying yes to life, that’s the affirmation of goodness. Secondly, though, we need to have that second step or second stage, which is recognizing where this good comes from.
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We recognize that it’s sourced at least partially outside of ourselves. So it could be other people doing things for us or securing things for us that we could not do or secure for ourselves. It could be the universe, it could be God if you have a spiritual framework, in other words, it’s sourced outside. We’re not grateful to ourselves, normally, it would be very strange to write a thank you letter to yourself, right? We just don’t do that sort of thing. So it’s recognizing that there’s a giver, that there’s a good, there’s a giver, there’s a gift and there’s a receiver. So certain elements have to be in place, okay.
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That I think sets the stage at least minimally for the experience of gratitude.
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Okay, so this is what the research looks like, so this is the paradigm for research that I began now over two decades ago. The gold standard for scientific research or medical research that as you may know is what they call randomized controlled trials or RCTs, for short. You randomly assign participants to various conditions. You have the treatment condition, you have various comparison conditions. You could have a true control condition where you do no actual intervention or treatment, but just to see if there’s a difference in the outcomes over some period of time after you apply your treatment.
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If we were trying a new drug, for example, a vaccine maybe, you know, we would assign people a vaccine condition, then a control condition may be something else and see if there’s variation in the outcomes, well here our treatment was gratitude, okay. It wasn’t a pill, it wasn’t a shot but rather it was people journaling what they were grateful for and we asked them to do this on a regular basis, in fact, every day for anywhere between one week and three weeks, go home tonight, write down three, four, five things that you are grateful for, to activate a gratitude awareness or gratitude consciousness, right?
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That’s basically the way in which we attempted to put people in this grateful frame of mind, okay. Several thousand people have been in these studies now and as young as the age of eight ‘til over the age of 80. And one of the beautiful things that I’ve found out in the research discovered is that gratitude is available to everyone. You’re never too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too sick, too healthy, you know, no matter what all these differences are between people, everyone can practice gratitude, gratitude is available to everyone.
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And that’s a great thing because some of the happiness practices or strategies that people are advised to go after are not available to everyone but gratitude is you can virtually create gratitude at almost any moment in your life. So it has that beautiful elasticity to it or flexibility to it and I think that’s really really important and really, really powerful. Okay, let’s look specifically. So if you were in the gratitude condition in the experiment you might be asked to do something like this. All right. This will be the instructions. Many things in our lives that we might feel grateful about. Think past over the past day, think back over the past day.
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So maybe tonight before you go to sleep, which for some of you is right around the corner,
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here it’s only 11:30 in the morning, but I know it’s later where a lot of you are. Write down five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for. So we call this gratitude journaling, okay? It turns out now there’s a whole industry of gratitude journaling, we’ve learned a lot about why it works and how to magnify its effects or its benefits and so that would be one condition. There’s other comparison conditions we’ve used but this has been the most commonly used protocol and paradigm for activating gratitude and you might ask people about different domains just to, you know, prompt them a little bit. Maybe it’s your family, maybe it’s friends, connections.
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It could be your own physical health or emotional health. It could be your work life, you know, there’s virtually no limit to the sorts of sources that people identify that they’re grateful for. So that’s a cool thing as well. Some people have thousands of thousands of unique gratitudes, they’ve been doing this for a long, long time and so we think that’s a great thing to have more specific and broad types of gratitudes. I think that gives you a lot more to, to rely upon when it comes to looking at a grateful life or creating a grateful life. So here’s a slide which has way too much information.
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I realized that I’m breaking like five out of the four rules of PowerPoints but and I won’t go through each of these panels ‘cause it would take way too long. What I wanna show to you, just to demonstrate to illustrate the fact that gratitude drives good outcomes in virtually every sphere, every domain of life in which it has been examined from, emotional well-being to relational health and relationship functioning to motivation like purpose driving toward goals achievement, being kind to others, grateful people pay it forward, they’re more likely to be generous and giving and forgiving. And then the bottom two panels are all about mental health.
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So grateful people are less depressed which is super important given that you know, depression and anxiety and addiction and people are just, you know, especially nowadays because of the pandemic, there’s studies are showing that, you know, mental health scores are really plummeting all over in every group that’s being studied. So if you had something which can make people more resilient, less vulnerable to some of these psychologically distressing states that would be really, really good and really really important. It turns out we have one, it’s called gratitude. Grateful people are actually more resilient to trauma to stress in general, whether it’s traumatic stress the big stress or the slow drip of everyday stress. Guess what? Grateful people handle stress better.
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And so again, super important information and study after study is showing that grateful living leads to massive advantages across spheres, across domains in life. You really can’t overplay the hand of gratitude that gratitude does lead to health and to wellness and to wholeness and to fullness
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Now in the domain of health, okay. Lot of findings and I should point out by the way that all these findings that I mentioned so far are quantifiable, they are sustainable. You can put metrics to them. Here are some statistics right here. When it comes to physical health, doctors, physicians, healthcare providers are super interested in these findings because we have good measurable data now, we have clinical biomarkers of health and illness and disease endpoints and actually aging indicators as well like telomere lengths, which are the caps on the end of your chromosomes. There’s research on that, linking that to gratitude, super exciting research.

Explore the definition of gratitude and how it can impact our health and well-being with clips from a seminar from Robert E. Emmons, a premier gratitude researcher from the University of California, Davis.

What is the most interesting psychological or physical benefit that you heard Dr. Emmons address in this clip? Which benefit do you think you would gain the most from?
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