Gratitude Summit Explores the Queen of the Virtues

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Artwork by Terri Friedman and her students at the California College for the Arts. Photo courtesy of GGSC.
Artwork by Terri Friedman and her students at the California College for the Arts. Photo courtesy of GGSC.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed that gratitude lies at the heart of joy. The scientific exploration of wellbeing, called positive psychology, continues to illuminate the ways in which the capacity to give thanks plays this critical role. It is the “queen of the virtues,” says Robert Emmons, one of the leading researchers in the field and professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. And yet, Emmons has also observed that studying gratitude is often met by a marked resistance.

This observation provided one focus for the Greater Good Gratitude Summit, the culmination of the Greater Good Science Center’s three-year project, “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude,” funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The gathering of psychologists and researchers, mentors and teachers, was joined by an audience in California and online on June 7 to explore and celebrate what had been learned, how the findings connect with established spiritual wisdom, and how the science of gratitude may develop in the future.

Emmons has identified a number of issues at play in the resistance to insights about gratitude that can be grouped into two types. First, there are objections to gratitude as a way of life. For example, some fear that gratitude leads to complacency or passivity, whereas the research suggests it actually drives a sense of purpose. “I define gratitude as affirming a benefit and giving credit to others for that benefit,” Emmons continues. In other words, gratitude, when properly understood, leads to an active appreciation of others. This also suggests a reason why it might cause disquiet: gratitude may be an acknowledgement of human beings’ dependence and humility, qualities that are not overtly nurtured in many parts of the western world today.

The second type of resistance to gratitude emerges as a more practical barrier. “What must be overcome as a culture or as individuals in order for gratitude to flourish?” Emmons asks. The answer, if it can be summed up in a word, would be entitlement. “We depend on parents, friends, God, the universe, and yes, sometimes even the government, to provide what we cannot always provide for ourselves,” Emmons says. We benefit when we show gratitude for all these aspects of life, but a culture of entitlement militates against that attitude. “We need to recognize that life is not something that can be bought, or is something that we are owed, but that it is a gift. Again, that is a profoundly countercultural thought in many parts of the world today.”

The Gratitude Summit was a sold out event. Photo courtesy of GGSC.

The Gratitude Summit was a sold out event. Photo courtesy of GGSC.

A related perspective on this point was presented by Christina Karns, a researcher in neuroimaging at the University of Oregon, who noted that “gratitude and altruism are sisters in virtue.” Her work suggests that gratitude mediates the relationship between oneself and others and builds life satisfaction. Similarly, gratitude is a powerful determinant of social relationships, particularly in terms of how connections are perceived by individuals, explained Jeff Huffman, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Huffman’s GRACE study has examined how gratitude aids in recovery from heart attacks because of the positive emotions it fosters.

In fact, the research sponsored by Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude has helped demonstrate numerous links between gratitude and physical health. For example, it has been shown that higher levels of gratitude are associated with lower blood pressure and healthier cholesterol levels, said Wendy Berry Mendes, associate professor at the University of Californian, San Francisco, another speaker at the event.

Gratitude as an ancient source of wisdom, as well as a modern object of study, was explored in a conversation between the world-renowned teacher Jack Kornfield and Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. Part of an enormously rich exchange between the two included reflections on “harvesting the joys of life.” This is a crucial practice, argued Brother David, with gratitude at its heart, to regard the sorrows as well as the joys of life as opportunities to be truly open to all that life can offer and to unite oneself with others. “Ultimately, it’s upon our vulnerability that we depend,” continued Kornfield, picking up on the themes of gift and dependence. “This changes us and society,” he added, and thereby gratitude becomes the basis upon which we continue, as human beings, to grow and to flourish.