If you want to learn about the latest scientific research on gratitude, start with ORBITER’s special project on the topic. But we also owe a great deal of debt to the great research being done at the University of California-Berkeley’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, a project at the Greater Good Science Center.
ORBITER reached out to one of the team’s experts, Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Cal State University-Dominguez Hills. He is a co-author of the book Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character, associate editor of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and director of the Youth Gratitude Project.
ORBITER: What got you interested in the science of gratitude?
Giacomo Bono: Initially, it was simply because I was surprised that we didn’t understand the development of this behavior. I realized that that could be my niche, an opportunity. Then that got me thinking about researching gratitude among youth. And finally, as an immigrant, gratitude is interesting because of its connection to building relationships. I started seeing gratitude as not just something you do to be polite, but as instrumental to building up networks and social capital.
Could that be interpreted as a selfish reason to develop gratitude?
I think we all pursue our goals in a social setting to some degree. It may be a benefit that I’m receiving but then I, in turn, pass that on to others. It’s part of how I found my purpose. And it’s part of society developing generosity in individuals. And I think the study of gratitude is beneficial for society.
How has gratitude helped you as an immigrant?
I was born in Italy, and came here when I was 4 years old. My parents didn’t have much education; I’m one of the first PhDs in my lineage. While my parents were encouraging and supportive, they weren’t instrumental in helping me make connections and figure things out. I had to do that on my own. So I’m very grateful for being in this country and for the unique opportunities to be able to focus on something that I’m passionate about. I’m grateful to be able to live in service of this work that I very much feel a steward of.
Are Americans in general a grateful people?
As to what the actual levels of gratitude are, comparing how we stand, I’m not entirely sure. But here’s what I do know: Europeans are used to expressing and using emotions much more openly, especially males. We talk about our relationships and our community.
One of the challenges I see in America is that we tend to not focus much on emotions, and more about just getting things done and finding a solution. We forget to talk about the human struggle and emotions.
We just like to get things done. But emotions are an important thing to talk about and use; they provide important information.
Are we born with gratitude, or is it something that needs to be taught and cultivated?
Like most things, there’s a blend of genetic determination happening there. But here’s what I can say: Gratitude is one of the character strengths that is most strongly related to happiness. And what we know from the research is that happiness is 50% due to genetics, 40% due to intentional activities, and about 10% to circumstances. So, I do believe that gratitude comes from more intentional living.
How do we do that?
You have to make an effort to pay attention to things. We have to try to be more mindful of how other people’s generosity was intentional—that they put forth effort on our behalf, that they understand what we’re going for, that they “get” us in a special way. Then you start getting into the more meaningful stories that drive us all. Everybody has a story, and other people contribute to our story, and we contribute to other people’s stories. Isn’t it wonderful that somebody understood something that you’re trying to achieve in your story?
Gratitude is one of the most underappreciated and least understood virtues. We really don’t understand enough how it makes us better humans. But we know that it’s universally valued; all the major religions practice it. The beauty of it is that anybody can practice it and grow it.
That 40% intention is an important determinant of gratitude; that’s a lot of control that you have. We also know from research that among all the character strengths, gratitude is the most malleable or “growable.” So, if you don’t have it, the game’s not over, you can still develop it.
Can we express true gratitude if we’re just not feeling it?
Yes, definitely. It provides an opportunity to think about social emotions, to reflect on your behavior. That’s healthy. In development, we call that “inductive discipline,” which helps young people understand the consequences of their behavior and why it was wrong—to consider some of the moral shortcomings of their choice of behavior and why it was a poor moral choice. So kids learn to become more moral, to become better towards others, as a result of such conversations and such discipline.
Can gratitude, or the lack thereof, affect our physical health?
Yes, there’s definitely new research about that. There’s some research about how gratitude helps patients recover from heart failure. It improves your sleep and helps buffer you from stress. On the flip side, there’s convincing evidence that sustained blame and anger, or feeling like you got a “bad deal,” is not healthy. That’s going to cut your life short.
We’re social beings from infancy. We have many mechanisms that encourage us to interact socially and to bond with others, and gratitude is part of that system of social bonding. That’s the big reason why it’s healthy—it helps us feel like we are part of a community. That’s something that all humans need. Forgiveness also plays a role in all of this.
Forgiveness is a very important part of resilience. I wrote a post-doc dissertation on forgiveness, especially how sustained anger and blame wears on your health, especially heart health. And the HeartMath Institute has found that when we are in a state of appreciation, our bodies are running very efficiently—our heart is like the conductor in an orchestra, helping the other organs become attuned to a certain rhythm.
You’ve done some research on gratitude in adolescents.
Yes. We haven’t published it yet, but we’re finding that teenagers who grew in gratitude during their high school years also reported some remarkable results. Compared with teens who showed less gratitude, the grateful ones had more bonding with the community and more involvement in extracurricular activities. They engaged in less negative social exchanges (lost patience or got angry). Personally, they had more self-control, empathy, self-awareness, self-confidence, optimism, and more goals and plans. They also tended to be more forgiving. They considered themselves more religious and especially more spiritual, they prayed more before meals, and they tended to be more involved at church. And, interestingly, they reported exercising more, and eating more fruits and vegetables! We can’t say that gratitude caused these things, but it’s definitely correlational.
Another interesting thing from that study is that most teenagers either remained flat in gratitude for those four years, or they declined in gratitude. The ones who went up in gratitude were the smallest sample. We’re still working on that study. We want to redo those analyses, looking at these different profiles of gratitude development.
Check out one of Dr. Bono’s talks here:
And don’t miss the rest of ORBITER’s special section, “Why Thanksgiving Matters.”