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The Science Of Gratitude: How Being Thankful Makes Us Happier

Asia Daniels gives her six-month-old son Quincy a kiss as they wait to board a bus at the Greyhound Bus Terminal  in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. They were on their way to Colorado Springs, Colo., to spend Thanksgiving with family. (Ed Andrieski/AP)
Asia Daniels gives her six-month-old son Quincy a kiss as they wait to board a bus at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Denver on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. They were on their way to Colorado Springs, Colo., to spend Thanksgiving with family. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Just in time for Thanksgiving, we’ll look at the science of gratitude and the evidence that it really does improve our lives.


David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University whose research focuses on “moral emotions.” Author of “Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.” (@daviddesteno)

Watch on YouTube.

Being Grateful: For More Than Just The Thanksgiving Holiday

“It is the one day when people tend to do it, but I think the message I want to get across to people is don’t just make it a one-off at your meal and then go and watch football. If you make this emotion a part of your daily life, it’s extremely powerful. It’s going to help your mind, your body, your relationships, your career and even your wallet.”

What We’re Talking About When We Say ‘Gratitude’

“Gratitude is an emotion that we feel when we believe that someone or something has given us something that we couldn’t easily achieve on our own. It’s there to change what we do next. People tend to think that gratitude is this passive thing — ‘Oh, somebody helped me in the past and that’s great.’ But the reason we have any emotion is because it’s designed to change what we do next, to be powerful in that way. So what gratitude does is it reminds us that other people — our parents, our friends, our family — have helped us, and therefore we feel that emotion and it makes us want to pay them back and to go above and beyond.

“Gratitude is entirely about the future, not the past. What it does is, when you feel grateful, it makes you willing to accept sacrifices to help other people, those who have helped you or even to pay it forward.”

The Evolutionary, Karma-Like Qualities Of Gratitude

“In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.

“I always talk about it in terms of a fancy word that economists use which is called intertemporal choice, which basically means decisions that have different consequences as time unfolds. It all boils down to — if I borrow $10 from you and don’t pay you back, I’m ahead right now. But if I don’t pay you back, you’re never going to interact with me again, and people who find out I didn’t pay you back are never going to interact with me, and I’m going to lose all of those benefits of future interactions that I’d have over time. And these emotions push us to sacrifice in the moment, to do the right thing, to build that karma.”

How You Can Practice Building Gratitude

“There are a few strategies. One strategy I recommend, it’s probably one people know, which is simply gratitude journaling. That is, every couple days, stop and reflect on things that you’re grateful for. Now the trick is, we all have the three things in life that we’re incredibly grateful for. If you think about those three things every day, they’re going to lose their power. You’re going to just habituate to them. But think about — did someone stop and give you directions today? Did someone give you a seat on the bus? Did someone just show you some type of kindness? And what we find in our work is those types of gratitude reflections produce the same behavioral effects as thinking of the thing that your parents did for you that changed the course of your life. And so stop and reflect on those.

“Another thing that I recommend for families or for work groups, if you’re a manager trying to instill among your work team, and we didn’t create this, this has been around for a long time, it’s called the reciprocity ring. And what that is, is everybody takes a Post-it note, and you write on it something that you need help with. And you put it up on the board. And then everybody has to then take another Post-it note, write their name on it and put it next to the thing they’re going to help with. And then what you do is draw lines between your Post-it that says what you want help with and your Post-it that shows you’re willing to help somebody else. And what you’ll see is a lot of crossing lines, and what it begins to show is this interconnected net structure that supports the whole group. And then of course what you do is you do the thing, you help the person who you said you’re going to help. This does two things: one, it makes people willing — it changes the culture in the family or the work group so that it’s OK to ask for help. One of the biggest problems is that people feel weak asking for help. We all need help, and if you are willing to admit it and ask for it, it’s a very empowering experience for someone else to be able to do that, and it’s rewarding when you actually help someone else or give something to someone else, it activates reward centers in your brain. Two — I now feel grateful because you helped me with something, and when I feel grateful, I’m going to then pay it either back to you or forward to someone else. It becomes a reinforcing circle of reciprocal relationships.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “Opinion: The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions” — “New Year’s Eve is a time to set goals: to eat better, to save more money, to work harder, to drink less. It’s Day 1 on the road to a ‘new you.’ But this road, as we all know, is difficult to follow. Humans are notoriously bad at resisting temptation, especially (as research confirms) if we’re busy, tired or stressed. By Jan. 8, some 25 percent of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept.

“Unfortunately, the problem of New Year’s resolutions is, in a way, the problem of life itself. Our tendency to be shortsighted — to value the pleasures of the present more than the satisfactions of the future — comes at a considerable cost. Surely by now you’ve heard of the psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiments, in which children who could resist the temptation to immediately eat one sweet would be rewarded with a second sweet about 15 minutes later. Professor Mischel found that those who could wait — those who had self-control — were also the ones who had better academic and professional success years later.

“Since then, study after study has linked self-control to achievement in a wide range of areas, including personal finance, healthful eating and exercise, and job performance. Put simply, those who can persevere toward their long-term goals in the face of temptation to do otherwise — those who have ‘grit’ — are best positioned for success.”

Wall Street Journal: “Thanksgiving and Gratitude: The Science of Happier Holidays” — “As the holiday shopping season moves into high gear, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of spending. But consider this conclusion from recent scientific research: Materialistic people are less happy than their peers. They experience fewer positive emotions, are less satisfied with life and suffer higher levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

“Why is this the case—and how can we avoid falling into the unhappiness trap of materialism this holiday season?

“One answer has been emerging from social science: Cultivate a mind-set of gratitude. Gratitude is proving to be about much more than the occasional ‘thank you.’ Instead, the principles of Thanksgiving give rise to a unique way of seeing the world.

“The latest evidence suggests that, rather than simply being about good manners, the emotion of gratitude might have deep roots in humans’ evolutionary history, sustaining the social bonds that are key not only to our happiness but also to our survival as a species.”

The Atlantic: “Better Than Willpower” — “Willpower, reason, and executive-functioning skills all seem like ingredients in the recipe for success. So why, then, have so many of us already abandoned our New Year’s resolutions, and it’s not even February yet?

“According to Emotional Success, a new book by the Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno, it’s because we’re going about pursuing our goals in the wrong way.

“Instead of putting our noses ever closer to the grindstone, he advocates relying on so-called social emotions—gratitude, compassion, and pride—to get things done. These emotions, he says, naturally encourage self-control and patience.

“They do so by combating people’s tendency to value the present over the future. When we feel grateful, compassionate toward ourselves and others, and proud of our abilities, the struggle to work hard for future rewards becomes, well, less of a struggle.”

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