Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and the author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, and so he’s written a lot about the benefits of gratitude.
Gratitude is, of course, an important aspect of joyful appreciation, or mudita, which is the practice that we’re exploring at the moment as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness. So here are a few ways that Dr. Emmons has shown gratitude can enhance our lives.
Gratitude enhances positive emotions: Emmons points out, as I have elsewhere, that we quickly habituate to pleasant circumstances, and that our positive emotions tend to wear off quickly. We’re wired as novelty seekers, and while we may celebrate some new development in our lives — a nice spell of weather, returning to health after an illness — the enjoyment quickly wears off, and we’re left with the existential “meh” that is so familiar to many of us. In fact we generally start seeking things to be discontented with. But when we consciously practice gratitude, we appreciate life’s benefits and are less likely to take them for granted. We find that we celebrate the many ways that goodness is woven into the fabric of life, and we feel more joyful and engaged.“
Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions: such as envy, resentment, regret — emotions that can destroy our happiness,” Emmons says, using language almost identical to Buddhist teachers of the last 2,500 years. He points to research suggesting that gratitude reduces the frequency and duration of periods of depression, and that people who are more grateful are less prone to envy and resentment. And this is exactly what we’d expect; resentment and envy are the direct emotional opposites of joyful appreciation. If you’re experiencing appreciation and gratitude, it’s impossible to feel envious or resentful at the same time.
Gratitude protects against stress: People who tend to be grateful bounce back more quickly from adverse circumstances, loss, suffering, and injury. They’re more emotionally resilient. Their ability to seek the good prevents them from focusing too much on the negative in situations. Someone who’s of a grateful disposition who suffers a disability is more likely to focus on the things they can do rather than to dwell on the things they can no longer do.
Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth: When we lack gratitude, we’re more likely to think that the world is against us and that nothing is going right in our lives. Therefore we think that we’re not worth much. Gratitude makes those kinds of cognitive distortions less likely. When we’re grateful we value what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have. We may feel grateful just for being, for having air to breathe. We recognize that even when some things are not going the way we want them to, the vast majority of circumstances are conspiring to support us. When we look at ourselves, we appreciate our own qualities, and see someone who is basically loved and supported by the universe.
I’d add to Dr. Emmons’ thoughts by pointing out that gratitude is a powerful reinforcer of social connections. People love to be appreciated and rejoiced in. When we expression our gratitude and appreciation of others, we cement powerful bonds, and feel connected. Those social connections are not only of practical benefit — people who like us are more likely to help us, but those people are more likely to be there for us emotionally. And feeling that we’re a part of a rich social network, which is more likely if we’re grateful to others, helps us to feel less alone with our problems. Studies have shown that feelings of isolation are actually as damaging for our health as cigarette smoking, so feeling connected to others provides valuable benefits to our physical and mental health.