Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier

Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier


Author: Robert Emmons (2007, Houghton Mifflin)

Reviewed by Marc Bernstein

            I discovered Robert Emmons’ book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, at a difficult moment in my life.  My wife had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; one doctor gave her six to nine months to live; another, six to 12.

          For the first time in almost 30 years, I envisioned life without her.  I thought I might hold up better if I concentrated not on what I would soon lose, but on what we had enjoyed for so many years:  a happy marriage.  I turned to Dr. Emmons’ book to help me re-orient my thinking.

          The book is good example of positive psychology, a branch of psychology that has turned away from the study of abnormality to look at those qualities (gratitude, hope, love) that sustain the human psyche.   By relying on rigorous studies, life stories and wisdom literature, Dr. Emmons’ slender, clearly written volume provides a rigorous, rounded view of gratitude and its role in human life. 

          He begins, of course, with a definition.  Emmons thinks of gratitude as a condition of thankfulness in which we acknowledge goodness in our lives and recognize that the source of that goodness is partially outside ourselves. As the poet Teasdale put it, “I am a debtor to life, / Not life to me.”

          Through a series of clever experiments, Emmons demonstrates the positive effects of gratitude on happiness and on physical health.  He manipulates the gratitude condition by asking one group what they have to feel good about; another, simply to fill out a neutral form. In one study, patients in the gratitude group who had neuromuscular disease reported more satisfaction with life, more sleep, and were seen by their spouses as more positive than similar patients in the placebo group.       

          Of course, such experiments are a little contrived.  Emmons offers further evidence for the salutary effects of gratitude by citing a colleague’s research on gratitude visits.  A gratitude visit is a one-on-one thank-you to a person who has had a lasting influence on one’s life or has shown one unusual kindness.  Such visits alleviate depression, not for a week but for some length of time.  As Emmons presents more and more evidence, it’s clear that a thankful heart is good for you.

          Several other themes come to light as the book progresses.  There’s a chapter on the role of gratitude in the major religions of the world, the author adding the observation that the faithful are more likely to feel grateful than those without a religious or spiritual commitment.  There’s a fine chapter on ingratitude, on those forces that impede the experience of gratitude.  A sense of entitlement, a feeling of victimization, an unwillingness to see one’s dependence on others—all are obstacles to being thankful.  Implicit in this chapter is a critique of American society (Americans are less likely than Germans or Israelis to see gratitude as an important value), and it foreshadowed an issue in the 2012 campaign.  Elizabeth Warren could have been Emmons’ spokeswoman on interdependence in her run for the Massachusetts Senate:

         “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good  for you. But, I want to be clear:  you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.  You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.  You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.  You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did.”

          Assuming that Emmons’ reader has not had her heart closed by the forces of ingratitude, she will find a number of questions raised in Thanks! worth considering.

          What about non-believers? Emmons mentions the value of religiosity in promoting a grateful outlook on life.  In fact, he begins one of his chapters with the story of Job.  But Job was a devoted believer; what about Humanists, atheists, Ethical Culturists? Can they not find a path to a grateful heart?

          As it turns out, Emmons has suggestions for those of little faith. Nothing in the book argues that we freethinkers cannot also become more grateful.  He recommends the following Buddhist prayer as one element in a regimen to encourage gratitude in believers and non-believers alike:

“Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky.

I join my hand in thanks

for the many wonders of life;

for having twenty-four brand-new hours before me.”

          Adversity or trauma? Emmons presents evidence that a grateful heart helps one during hard times.  A study of those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s found that caregivers who kept a gratitude journal in which they counted their blessings felt a greater sense of well-being, less stress, less depression, and had fewer physical complaints over the course of the study than those who listed hardships they experienced every day. 

          But Emmons does not distinguish between hardship and trauma.  Would my friend, who lost a young daughter to suicide a year ago, find solace in the prayer cited above, or in keeping a gratitude journal?  Would the parents of the kids murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary?  Emmons’ answer would be that one must act gratefully even when one does not feel grateful, and eventually the feeling will follow. Well, I wouldn’t want to suggest this to my friend. He needs to heal in any way he can and talk of gratitude after such a tragedy seems inappropriate.

          How to acquire a grateful heart: Overall, Emmons presents abundant evidence that a grateful heart benefits its possessor in many ways.  But how do we acquire it?  In his concluding chapter, Emmons outlines a program that will get us there. From journaling, in which we enumerate our blessings, to prayer (however understood), to the internal messages we give to ourselves that speak of thankfulness, he offers a program that will increase our feelings of gratitude. I, for one, am trying some of his suggestions.

          I was drawn to Emmons’ book by the dire predictions about my wife’s cancer. Happily, the oncologists were mistaken:  She is alive and doing pretty well more than two years after their prognosis.  Now, that’s something to be grateful for!

Marc Bernstein is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and former archivist for the American Ethical Union.


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