Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude, establishes two key components of gratitude as a social emotion: 1) we must recognize there is good in the world, and 2) we must humbly accept that this goodness comes outside of ourselves. His research shows that when people intentionally engage in practices of gratitude, they experience a wide range of benefits.
- Physically: Grateful people tend to have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and more restful sleep patterns.
- Psychologically: Grateful people experience more positive emotions like joy and pleasure, tend to be more optimistic, and gain resilience in the face of struggles and attacks. Gratefulness can also reduce episodes of depression.
- Socially: People who practice gratitude are more forgiving, generous, and compassionate. They also feel less lonely and more connected to others. Gratefulness counteracts negative social emotions like envy and resentment.
Emmons notes, however, that we have deeply ingrained tendencies that work against expressing gratitude, such as:
- The “self-serving bias”: We believe that good things happen because of something we did, but bad experiences are the fault of others.
- The need for control: Most of us want to feel in control of our lives rather than graciously accepting life as it comes.
- The “just-world hypothesis”: Good things happen to good people (and bad things happen to bad people). Therefore, we deserve good things and, in fact, are entitled to them.
Gratitude challenges all of these behaviors by helping us acknowledge the good in our lives that, for Christians, ultimately originates in the goodness of God.