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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Psychology professor seeks the science of gratitude

Editor in chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, author of three books on gratitude and UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons received a $5.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation for a three-year research project on gratitude.

According to its website, the John Templeton Foundation identifies itself as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries that relate to human purpose and ultimate reality. It supports research on subjects such as free will, creativity and evolution.

“Gratitude is actually considered to be a Christian virtue, but instead of having a theological explanation for why we should feel grateful, [we] also have a scientific one just like when they supported research on meditation and how meditation can have positive psychological consequences,” said professor of psychology Dean Keith Simonton.

Emmons, who has been working with the foundation on developing a research initiative on gratitude, said that the core spiritual theme of gratitude was a central life principle to its founder, Sir John Templeton.

The study of gratitude falls under the area of positive psychology that focuses on human thriving, unlike disorders and traditional psychology.

“[Researchers] try to see what happens if you put more emphasis on those human virtues. And one of the things that Bob Emmons found was that gratitude is not only something you should do; you should be grateful for things. It has a positive impact not just on other people that you’re grateful [toward], but on you when you feel gratitude. In the early stages of this classic study, he showed that if you ask people to think of things that they should be thankful for, they feel happier,” Simonton said.

Researchers from UC Berkeley, California State University, Dominguez Hills and Hofstra University will be working with Emmons on this project. Research on the development of gratitude in adolescents and children is being conducted by Emmons and his colleagues as part of the research project.

In his research, Emmons is interested in the interaction between gratitude and spirituality, the influence of gratitude on feelings of success and pro-social behavior, according to psychologist and dean of the UC Davis Division of Social Sciences George R. Mangun.

“The idea of the grant is they’re going to try to create a practice of gratitude. These researchers from all these different institutions are going to be trying to develop methods to improve gratitude and to gather data to show how methods in the positive psychology might best be organized to help people,” Mangun said.

The grant will allow Emmons to look into the scientific database of gratitude.

“The goals of the initiative are to expand the scientific database of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of health, well-being and developmental science and by supporting leading-edge and visionary scientific research and to promote evidence-based practices of gratitude in medical, educational and organizational settings and in schools, workplaces, homes and communities,” Emmons said.

Aside from receiving a grant, the project will award grants ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 in support of innovative research.

Three hundred letters of inquiry have been received; however, only 12 to 15 will be funded, according to Emmons.

“Roughly $1,000,000 of the total funds will be driving research studies directed toward answering the following questions: What is the developmental trajectory of gratitude in children? What school-based interventions can promote sustainable increases in grateful character traits? Is there a critical period when the capacity for gratitude is best transmitted from an older to a younger generation? To what degree is gratitude predictive of positive outcomes such as school success, overall well-being, community service, resiliency, health behaviors and less risk taking?”  Emmons said.

The psychology department at UC Davis is ranked in the top 10 percent of psychology departments nationally due to the quality of research done by the faculty, according to Mangun.

“It’ll help continue to accelerate the reputation of the psychology department in the state and nationally, especially in the area of positive psychology,” said Mangun. “The grant was received because the work here is so well-recognized and respected, but on the other hand, once you receive it, you have to do even more research right and develop new knowledge.”

LILIANA NAVA OCHOA can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.


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