The Psychology of Gratitude
Book by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (2016)
Find the Full Book

What is the Science?

In their book, The Psychology of Gratitude by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough weave together fourteen insightful essays on the science of gratitude, demonstrating that the virtue must be defined and explored by paying careful attention to not only the psychology, but also to anthropology, philosophy, biology, theology, and even primatology.” In doing so, the authors insist that understanding the place of gratitude in human flourishing requires interdisciplinary cooperation—especially between theologians and scientists.

Given that gratitude is a fundamental attribute of human beings and a potential key to human flourishing, we should endeavor to learn as much as we can about its origins, its forms of expressions, and its consequences for individual and collective functioning. –Robert A. Emmons

What is the Theology?

In the final chapter of The Psychology of Gratitude, theologian David Steindl-Rast argues that gratitude runs deeper than “thankfulness” in that the former is an experience that moves past relational indebtedness and into something deeper. More than thankfulness, transpersonal gratitude can become a spiritual moment in which one experiences a “feeling of universal belonging” which can occur, for example, when a person warmly cherishes nature’s beauty (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-4).

Christian theology has historically agreed that gratitude toward God and community is fundamental to Christian confession. Karl Barth, for example, states that “gratitude follows grace like thunder [follows] lightning” (Church Dogmatics, Vol IV). Still, it might behoove preachers to consider how the diversity of the human sciences support and refine the theory between the virtue which remains so central to Christian communities (Ps. 95; Eph. 5:20; Rom. 1:21-23).

What to Consider

  • What is the difference between thankfulness and gratitude? How does your theology and your scientific understanding help you answer that question?
  • How do you envision scientists and preachers working together to explore the theory and implications of practicing gratitude?
  • How might you create space in your church community for parishioners to gain access to the latest developments in the psychology and theology of gratitude?

How to go Deeper

  • In your sermons on gratitude, consider how anthropology, philosophy, biology, and psychology might interact with the theme of gratitude in your chosen Scripture(s). A good starting place, beyond reading The Psychology of Gratitude, is to type “gratitude” into the search bar at The Greater Good website.
  • Inject scientific insights into your preaching by studying developments in the science of gratitude, including its demonstrable health benefits and the role of gratitude in human flourishing.
  • Give a platform to those whose lives have been affected by gratitude through testimony sharing or (with permission) sermon illustrations.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

The Power of Forgiveness at Work
Article by Brooke Deterline (2016)
Read the Full Article

May 1st, 2017|6 Comments

What is the Science? While the benefits of forgiveness are widely supported by two decades of research, a recent study seeks to demonstrate the positive impact of forgiveness within the specific context of [...]

The Three Parts of an Effective Apology
Christine Carter (2015)
Read the Full Article

February 3rd, 2017|4 Comments

What is the Science? Often the catalyst for receiving forgiveness is offering a good apology. Yet, in her article “The Three Parts of an Effective Apology,” Christine Carter suggests that all apologies are [...]

Is Vengeance Better for Victims than Forgiveness?
Article by Jason Marsh (2015)
Read the Full Article

December 16th, 2016|5 Comments

What is the Science? After victimization, many people desire vengeance. In well-publicized atrocities, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing or the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting, prosecutors, the public, and victims’ families [...]

How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness
Article by Linda Graham (2014)
Read the Full Article

December 16th, 2016|3 Comments

What is the Science? Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It can take a great amount of time and work to arrive at a place where we can let go of hostility and [...]

Which Contributes More to Forgiveness, Sympathy or Free Will?
Article by Michael McCullough (2013)
Read the Full Article

December 14th, 2016|2 Comments

What is the Science? Psychologist Michael McCullough suggests that when humans consider forgiving others they instinctively engage in one of two distinct systems for arriving at forgiveness: sympathy or free will. McCullough argues [...]

How Grudges Hurt Your Health
By Joanna McParland (2016)
Read the full Article

September 27th, 2016|4 Comments

What is the Science? Research has long suggested that if a person carries a prolonged grievance they risk adverse health effects. Now, a new study suggests that one’s determination to hold a grudge [...]

By | 2019-04-30T23:48:38+00:00 May 15th, 2017|Gratitude, Research|6 Comments

About the Author:

Michael Wiltshire serves as an assistant pastor at Rose City Church in Pasadena, CA. He holds an M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016) and a B.S. from Cornerstone University, double majoring in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. While studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, he co-led the Fuller Faith and Science student group and worked in residential community. Michael is passionate about pastoral care, and is dedicated to exploring how preaching, practical theology, and organizational systems can empower churches to care well. A Michigander at heart, Michael enjoys cloudy weather and the NBA.


  1. Weabz May 15, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    I don’t know that understanding the plays of gratitude in human flourishing “requires” and interdisciplinary study, but surely can be helpful.

    Interesting read and provides plenty to think about.

  2. aidenkang May 15, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    Look forward to reading it.

  3. aidenkang May 15, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    “Gratitude follows grace like thunder [follows] lightning” – Karl Barth.

  4. aidenkang May 16, 2017 at 2:32 am

    Man, that’s an expensive book.

  5. May 17, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    Good to see the acknowledgment of the need for an interdisciplinary approach. So much of academia is siloed in isolated departments today which leads to reductive accounts of phenomena like “gratitude” that require a multidisciplinary approach to wrap your mind around.

Leave A Comment