The science of feeling good
Positive emotions are challenging to study, because they are difficult to define, "and anything that is hard to define is hard to study," said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
In spite of the challenges, psychologists have begun collecting evidence of the benefits of positive emotions, including gratitude. Psychologist Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, has studied gratitude and defines it in two parts: First, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness in the world, and second, gratitude requires the recognition that the sources of this goodness exists outside of individuals.
Emmons' work suggests not only that gratitude is associated with greater well-being, but that the sentiment and those benefits can be cultivated. For instance, a study he and a colleague published in 2003 showed that those who recorded things that had made them grateful had an improved sense of well-being, slept better and more, felt a greater sense of optimism and connectedness to others. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]
"Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits," Emmons and colleague Michael McCullough wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They noted that the benefits are most pronounced when compared to a focus on complaints and hassles.
In general, research has associated the regular practice of gratitude with physical benefits, such a stronger immune system, and higher levels of broad positive emotions as well as social benefits, such as being more forgiving, outgoing and feeling less lonely and isolated, Emmons writes. (The list of benefits compiled by the center is long.)
Sharing with others is an important aspect of gratitude, other research indicates. Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, had people write letters expressing thanks to someone who had a positive impact on them. Some sent their letters to the person; others kept their letters. Those who shared their letters experienced stronger mental-health benefits than those who just wrote the letter, Simon-Thomas said.
The center, in collaboration with UC Davis, has awarded $3 million in grants to improve the scientific understanding of gratitude, including projects that examine the biology of gratitude.