Gratitude Works!
Podcast #76 — Aired December 7, 2015

Science shows that gratitude can make you happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. But how can we implement those findings into our own lives? This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re talking with the leading expert in gratitude, Dr. Robert Emmons. He’ll tell listeners how they can implement new practices for a more grateful life.

 

 

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Dr. Robert Emmons
Author, Gratitude Works!

Dr. Robert Emmons is Professor of Psychology at the "University of California, Davis” where he has taught since 1988. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Emmons is the author of nearly 200 original publications in peer reviewed journals or chapters and has written or edited five books, including Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Gratitude Works! A Twenty-One Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. A leader in the positive psychology movement, Dr. Emmons is founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and his research has been featured in dozens of popular media outlets.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi welcome to BetterWorldians radio. BetterWorldian`s radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I'm Ray Hansel joined today by my co-host and life partner MarySue Hansel and by the way were the also the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. It's a game that rewards players for doing good deeds while helping to raise money and awareness for charities to date over thirty-five million good deeds have been done in a better world by more than three and a half million people. Good deeds like expressing gratitude, acts of kindness and sending notes to real world sick kids to name a few. Today we continue our gratitude series for the holiday season we're featuring four special guests who will each speak about the importance of gratitude and the positive impact they can have on all of our lives. This week we'll be speaking with Dr Robert Emmons the leading scientific expert on gratitude about his new book gratitude works. Dr Robert Emmons is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis where he has taught since 1988 he received his PhD degree from the University of Illinois in Urbana champagne. Dr Emmons is also the author of nearly two hundred original publications in peer reviewed journals or chapters and has written or edited five books including thanks! How practicing gratitude can make you happier and recently gratitude works, a twenty one day program for creating emotional prosperity which we'll be discussing further today. A leader in the positive psychology movement Dr Emmons founding editor in- chief of The Journal of positive psychology and his research has been featured in dozens of popular media outlets. Hi Dr Evans thanks for joining us today on that BetterWorldians radio.

Dr Robert
Welcome Ray, its great to be with you.

Raymond Hansell
OK it's good to have you aboard we were a big fan of your work. We both actually the entire group of us in here has read recently gratitude works and we are big fan of the work that you did in thanks! as well, so now you're a leading expert in the field of gratitude so what is it about gratitude that drew you to it that you're so passionate about.

Dr Robert
Well you know back when I was an undergraduate in psychology I realized there was a reason why people chose to study what they did that these choices weren't random. and it always seemed to me quite intriguing actually that people were trying to discover something about themselves or learn something or improve themselves in some way. So I noticed that people example who studied memory were very forgetful people. I thought that was kind of interesting. I noticed that people who studied forgiveness they tended to hold grudges people who were introverted studied assertiveness and extroversion. I thought well that's really it seems to be a pattern there it's not it's not random or arbitrary and that's the way it was with me with gratitude I found myself constantly taking things for granted. I found myself not really being aware of the good things in my life not expressing gratefulness to other people. So basically what I'm saying is I'm doing this mostly for myself. Now I know that sounds awfully self-centred, but basically I need to be reminded of the good things in my life I need to be reminded that the best response to these good things to goodness is gratefulness so I suspect I'm not that much different from other people. I just find that I have an opportunity and a platform to spread the news about gratitude and hopefully improve myself and give people an opportunity to inspire them to make some changes as well.

Raymond Hansell
it's a very clear motivation. You know it's well established that gratitude leads to happiness. Could you tell us about that connection?

Dr Robert
Sure you know of course we all want to be happy. It's one of the major motivations in life whether we were aware of it or not whether we admit this or not to ourselves to other people. The decisions and choices we make about what to study for example or what job to take what occupation to follow where to live who to marry we make these decisions with the idea in our mind what will bring us the most happiness. What will decrease on our level of unhappiness, and we know that gratitude is one of those factors that by practicing we can increase our level of happiness. And I think really when it comes down to that, that gratitude is an amplifier or magnifier of the good in our lives things that we normally may perhaps take for granted or not notice. We pay more attention to these we in amplifier or magnifier something that you know just helps us notice these. it pumps up the volume of the goodness in our lives that makes us more aware of the good things the benefits and how people helped us and supported us and sustained us, doing things for us that we cannot do for ourselves. And so that's the main reason why gratitude produces happiness is because it strengthens our connections to other people and magnifies the goodness in our lives.

Raymond Hansell
So almost it's like adding spice to some type of formula that really you know brings out the best.

Dr Robert
It really does. There's an old saying that you know what you appreciate appreciates. And so appreciation is simply increasing in value of something. many things depreciate, in fact most things that we have depreciate in value as they get older but gratitude is one of those factors and forces that can help us appreciate the value of those things we have whether people whether they're in material goods whether it's life itself. Like gratitude has its power.

Raymond Hansell
So what are some of the health benefits of gratitude, you mentioned this in your book. Why dont we share a little bit of that?

Dr Robert
Sure. I mean there's an old saying, which I usually get wrong when I try to remember it. I think it's about a hundred years ago. A person by the name of John Henry Jowett said that gratitude is a vaccine an anti-toxin and anti-septic. Now John Henry was not a medical man and he was actually in the business of caring for the soul he was a Protestant preacher. But this was a very important insight a century ago that gratitude in fact now we know is good medicine that there an array of health benefits associated with being grateful or practicing gratitude. So many new state of the art measures of health and illness. For example, clinical trials are showing that the practice of gratitude can lower blood pressure can improve immune function can facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression for substance abuse disorders. It's a resiliency fact in the prevention of suicide in some of the latest findings. This is really cool and really mind blowing that gratitude been associated with reductions in cholesterol levels. Ray: cholesterol levels!Dr Robert: Yeah. I mean it's really you know significant biomarkers of health and also stress and it's been correlated with reductions in stress hormones such as cortisol. So we're not just saying that grateful people you know feel better or have more energy or are happier those are important outcomes as well, but now a real medical you know clinical indicators of health an illness are also being linked to gratitude so gratitude is good medicine.

Raymond Hansell
you even talk I think in the book and I urge people to read the book to see all these anecdotal supportive pieces of information. The story is about a MarySue that was living into her nineties who credited so much of her life Being grateful and doing the kinds of things that you have expressed in your first book "Thanks!".Dr Robert: It's important to have those individual stories as well because you know that we need the science we need the statistics in the coefficients. but really when gradually can wake people up and can rock the world when they see it operating within a person's life. And it seems to be that we get in the way of ourselves. I think our biggest obstacle and why it's a difficult is that you know we tend to be self-focused individuals. And it doesn't mean that we weren't responsible but we have to acknowledge the contributions that others are making to our well-being to our success in life. And that you know for many people doesn't come easy or naturally, it has to be intentionally practiced.

Dr Robert
It really does it's really another focused orientation. Ray: So how can we be grateful. This is another very interesting thing in your book for what you call mindful materialism. Dr Robert: Yes, so oftentimes there's a false dichotomy set up. That is, you know if you are interested in acquiring things as you know it's the holiday season right? We're buying gifts for ourselves. Maybe we buy a gift I meant we buy gifts for others. But maybe we buy gifts a little for you and flip them for ourselves at the same time. And there are those who say you know if you're grateful you're going to be more content with that what you have already. You are going to be less consumed by consumerism. And I don't see that necessarily as an either or choice. there's no reason why we can't be grateful in the context of material goods, in fact we know from our own research that people are not only grateful to others for the benefits they provide but they're grateful to things that they have you could be grateful for something or grateful to someone and one does not rule out the other. in my mind it's really about you know what adds value to our lives. If we have a particular device or I have mentioned in the book, I have this beautiful coffee maker that's quick efficient and it's quiet. And so that makes my life better and easier. Am I grateful to it or for it? well in a way yes, I mean I recognize that it doesn't intend to provide me with a benefit. But it does make my life easier and better, and for that reason I'm grateful. so we can be grateful we can think about things that we have.In a very you know I think thoughtful and mindful way, and it's not inconsistent with happiness that comes from possession of things that are desirable and add value to our lives.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah we do a lot of shows about mindfulness we will be doing some more coming up but I think that it weaves into so many different aspects of our life so it's it's really great to be in the present and being mindful even in the expression of gratitude as well. So how can we be grateful however during you know when things get tough when it's really hard shipboard, or grief that we're faced with how can we have that gratitude you expressed that in the book so well. Dr Robert: Yes, well that's always intrigued me the fact is that we know that most people if you look at their levels of happiness that they're well above the median or the midpoint on the scale. So the average person is happy about seventy percent of time studies show. But we know that life is full of grief it's full of losses it's full of hardship the Buddha said you know life is suffering and so. How do we reconcile those two? And it seems to me that gratitude is one way to do so, because with a grateful outlook we can live to those losses or those difficult times or adversity, and we can look for opportunities that exist within us. and say this is awful that's happening. I wish this wasn't happening I'm not grateful that this is happening but yet what can I learn from it? Can I develop some new strengths or some new skills? Or gain some new insight into my life into why it's happening and come out a better person on the other side. So gratitude is a lens by which we view this hardship and these adversities and perhaps even when we become very good [13:11]. We can convert this adversity into prosperity.

[break 14
55-16:30]

Raymond Hansell
You are listening to better worldians radio. We are speaking with Doctor Robert Emmons a leading scientific expert on the subject of gratitude. and now let's welcome back Marry Sue and Dr Emmons.MarySue: Hi Dr Emmons.

Doctor Robert
Hi Marry Sue. MARYSUE: You know you're a big believer in the gratitude journals matter of fact I think you invented it. Can you explain the practice and its benefits to our listeners.Doctor Robert: Well actually I think it was Oprah who invented it but I'm happy to take credits for it.MarySue: ooh ok?

MarySue Hansell
You know one of the tips I really liked that you mentioned, is being very specific and detailed that was that really gave me a lot of insight. Because I started doing that ever since I read your book and it made it more interesting for me the whole process. And I think it helped me enjoy it more too.Robert: Well it really makes you mindful of the contributions that other people are making if that's in fact what you were writing about. It is much more definitive I think in much more effective and it really intensifies my gratitude. If I think about all of the people who are making my life easier were responsible for helping me achieve what it is that I'm trying to get done. And so years ago I started this practice where I was flying from the West Coast to the east coast. And when I got to my destination I started to make a mental list of all the people who were involved and it was in the hundreds by the time I was done. I know it's just amazing that I would have not [21:10] them or not have been mindful of all the unseen people behind the scene event of you know moving from point A to point B. So that's a great I think a pretty good example of how you can get very specific in noting the benefits people are providing for you. And that really changes the face of travel which could be a very stressful experience but one which could be also a potential opportunity for gratitude. MarySue: Yeah I use that specific detailing when I saw this beautiful sunrise, I got up early one morning which I don't normally do. And I passed by my bedroom window and saw the most gorgeous sunrise. So I quickly got out my app and describe the whole thing and also the feeling in my body and it was just a wonderful experience.

Doctor Robert
And you have the details so you can go back to these again. There are days we don't feel like doing that or days where it's more of a chore to do so and you go back and you re-read your entry from the previous day and it's very inspiring.MarySue: Well thank you for that good advice. Anyway, Going beyond the gratitude journal. Can you share that story you had in your book about Walter green?Doctor Robert: Walter Green. So Walter Green was the C.E.O. of a major corporation I don't remember which one it wasn't that important. but the point is after retiring selling his [22:26] of the business he moved to the west coast I think he was from Southern California. He was ready to take on a new a new job a new purpose something to give his life more meaning and value. Now so he wound up sitting down and making a list of all the people in this life that made a positive impact on him he wanted to tell all these people about his gratitude toward them how they had made his life better. And this became a goal for him this became his personal mission for the next year traveling around the country to visit them, I think it was close to fifty people he visited to share with them. What difference they had made in his life. And this is a great illustration of what's come to be known as a gratitude visit which is another I think of it as gratitude journaling on steroids.MarySue: OH boy.Doctor Robert: That is, you're focusing on what you're grateful for but you're actually expressing that to a person you write a letter of gratitude you could send it to them or you could combine it with a visit like Walter Greene did. I found out because he had actually read my book Thanks! And he wrote to me and he said I think I have the quote here somewhere he said uuh the book he wrote it's called This is the moment and it's really great because that title captures his essence. That you really have to take the moment and express to people how grateful you are them before it's too late, you might not have that opportunity. And he inscribed in the book that he sent to me he said "I know you have mined the subject of gratitude for many years. I thought it would interest you how I struck gold on my journey.", it was so touching of him to do that. And a lot of people like that; taking the time to go out and thank those who did never properly took the time to thank.MarySue: Yeah that's a good story as a matter of fact Ray and I recently got a letter I think at the end of October from a former employee that we haven't talked to in twenty years in the past marketing company that we used to run. And I thought you might be interested in hearing it.Doctor Robert: Yeah.

MarySue Hansell
Ray do you have that letter?Ray: I do indeed. I'm ready to read it.MarySue: OK.

Raymond Hansell
Just to give you the context this is somebody who started with us out of college. Worked with us about ten years and over that time the company really sprouted and took wing and he was one of the key people eventually responsible for a lot of that in the technology area so it starts out as follows." Hi Ray and MarySue It's been quite a while since I checked in. I'm hoping that you and the family are doing well, I made a note to reach out and thank you for the investment you made in my development and career. It never ceases to amaze me how something that I learned under your mentorship still benefits me to this day. when people comment on how I handle a specific situation or employee discussion I always mention the training and development I was provided with you. Employee development emotional intelligence seems to be all the rage now and I have to smile when I think now back at the fact that you guys were ahead of the curve thirty years ago and you're thinking and pushing these concepts. I know I don't reach out to you guys enough and I should do more to stay in touch but I did want to reach out and let you know that there is never a day that I'm not tremendously grateful for the time that I spent with you, and the time that you took at my professional development." And he signed it, and it actually took us by surprise. It happened on a really a tough weekend at a tough time and it just was what a picker upper. It was like a ray of sunshine that came in and said wait a minute here's somebody that's grateful for something that you did twenty or thirty years ago and they want to remind you and it was just it was it was delivered by mail but it was not in person but it was it had the impact as if it were right in person was a tremendous experience.Doctor Robert: Sure. [26:10] it was for people to express that in writing from a distance because we know we don't always receive gratitude. Well sometimes we're embarrassed. You know and you guys received that that well but there are stories where people out there and they will go to express gratitude and the person who wants to do the giver feels embarrassed and they feel dismissed. there was a doctor I heard in a conference he wanted to express his gratitude to another physician who had performed some lifesaving procedure on him he went to thank him and the doctor said I was just doing my job. MarySue: OH, that's terrible.Doctor Robert: He felt so deflated almost you know dismissed by this comment. Sending and expressing gratitude is good but also receiving it, there's an art to that as well. MarySue: Maybe he read your book, Maybe that's why. you never know. I have to ask him if we get back in touch. I invited him for lunch. We'll see if he takes us up on it. Anyway can you give our listeners a little taste of that wonderful twenty-one-day program for creating immersion prosperity that you mentioned in the book?Doctor Robert: sure you know since there's such an industry that's evolved concerning gratitude journaling we know what works and what doesn't work. And we know that there are different ways to journal for gratitude. Not all journaling is created equally so we have a twenty-one-day program where we have seven specific sets of instructions. To guide people through the process of journaling for gratitude. So each day or each evening there's a different focus. So for example Day one, let's say today is the day when will you start. You might be asked to write about what gifts you receive today and gifts being used in a very general generic sense what benefits what [27:53] did you receive today. Or what gifts do you have what personal you know attributes or qualities did you have that you can see those as a gift. So you focus on those tonight. Maybe tomorrow you write down simply three good things that happened and explain and Explore why those happened who is responsible for this. And then day three the shift is more than let's say the Jimmy Stewart what would my life be like without this person or gift or circumstance in it. So it's really designed to give us a different focus. So we don't get tired so we don't experience what they call gratitude fatigue. Which is simply writing the same old things day after day after day it can become very old very stale very repetitive very monotonous we do that. So it's really designed to help you know juice the joy behind the gratitude to keep it fresh to keep it novel and so it sustains us as we go through this journey. Now we repeat those seven steps three times for twenty-one-day program and then people find that's enough usually to get them on the road to increasing the gratefulness. Where they only need to follow the booster session maybe once or twice a week after that three-week period to keep doing it. The people to keep doing it for months later sometimes years as a sustained practice.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah I think it really can sustain the practice because it really teaches. you know it expanded my whole view of gratitude because at one time I did do a gratitude journal for a couple of years. and then I thought it got boring and repetitive but I think if you do what you're suggesting here with all the rotations and the different techniques you know you get to continually enjoy it.Doctor Robert: And you start to feel more in control of your life as well. you know that's the one of the problems with the way our mind works is that it's easily hijacked by negativity by bad news all around us. And you know every day It's a constant drip either of terrible news or bad news or not good news. And so gratitude is something that helps remind us that there is goodness in the world that there are good qualities in ourselves and other people. And so when we practice this it becomes self-sustaining because why do we want to go back to all we have looking at life where we're just a victim of our circumstances and events happening to us and we can take some control of our emotional states and that's what gratitude allows us to do.

Doctor Robert
That's a big question, right? And a difficult question. I know simply what you're doing in just helping spread the news about the healing power of gratitude is so important.

MarySue Hansell
Thank you.Doctor Robert: When I first began this research it was a decade and a half ago. And the benefactor philanthropists who's funded most of the research. Virtually all of it actually Sir John Templeton, I stood up at a conference I was at and he said how can we get seven billion people around the world to practice gratitude.MarySue: Wow.

Doctor Robert
Actually he said six billion because that was the population then. But now seven billions of people said that today he would have been seven billion. And I think that you know we need as many people as possible to get on board with this program, to express how important gratitude is to explain what it is and how it works and how we can get more of it. Because you know I'm only one person there is only a handful of us who are doing research. But there are people out there like you folks who could spread the word about the power of gratitude. Make it available make people know that it's something that everyone can do. Everyone can practice, you never too old or too young or too rich or too poor to practice, gratitude is equally available to everyone. And I think that's how change happens it happens from the inside out, we change ourselves and then we can we can bring about broader change more global change from the inside out and that's why I'm a phycologist you know. If I thought, you could change people from the outside in I probably would become a politician or a policymaker. But I think change comes more from the inside out. So I think you know by improving individually one by one gratitude, we can have some long term impact.MarySue: Great answer.Ray: And maybe there's a tipping point in there as we do so that really starts to turn the corner which we all being on the same mission here in the same journey we all hope for. Dr Emmons we'd like to thank you for joining us today a BetterWorldian radio.Doctor Robert: The pleasure is mine, thank you for having me. Ray: And you're very welcome. Be sure to tune in next week when we continue our gratitude series with Dr Emiliano Simon Thomas from the greater good science centre. As we end our show we'd like to share a BetterWorldian`s mission, we strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking positive values and positive actions. In short our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everyone so that we can all make it a better world. So until next time please be a BetterWorldian.