The Attitude of Gratitude

Oodles of “self help” books are on the market these days, all aimed at inspiring people to enhance their attitudes or work habits or personal character. There’s a lot of interest in at least reading about self-improvement, even if we don’t actually do it.

I recently picked up a cheap, second-hand copy of a 2008 paperback by Dr. Robert A. Emmons titled “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.” Emmons is a professor at the University of California-Davis and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. I thought I’d skim a few pages, glean a few quotable quotes and then stick it on the shelf with all the other self-improvement books gathering dust in my basement. But this one grabbed my attention on the first page. I couldn’t put it down until I read the other 208.

This isn’t just a feel-good collection of generalities and catchy phrases. It’s rooted in what the latest science can teach us. In language a lay reader can easily understand, Emmons reveals groundbreaking research into the previously under-examined emotion we call “gratitude.” As defined by Emmons, gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside one’s self.

Years of study by the author and his associates show that “grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness.”

A grateful attitude enriches life. Emmons believes it elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. The science of it proves that gratitude is an indispensable key to happiness (the more of it you can muster, the happier you’ll be) and happiness adds up to nine years to life expectancy.

Gratitude isn’t just a knee-jerk, unthinking “thank you.” It’s much more than a warm and fuzzy sentiment. It’s not automatic. Some people, in fact, feel and express it all too rarely. And as grateful a person as you may think you are, chances are you can develop an even more grateful attitude, a task that carries ample rewards that more than compensate for its moral and intellectual challenges.

The research that Emmons cites contains a subtle but powerful message about the welfare state. If you think you’re entitled to it, chances are you won’t be grateful for it, which in turn will deeply and negatively affect your overall happiness.

In the final chapter, a mere 24 pages, the author lays out 10 steps (exercises, in fact) for cultivating the critically important emotion of gratitude. If you give this book a look, I guarantee that you’ll be grateful for the recommendation.