in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #459: Beyond Gratitude Lite: The Real Virtue of Thankfulness

This Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the United States. It’s a holiday dedicated to gratitude, and one in which we often trot out expressions of thankfulness.

But how much is gratitude a part of our lives the other 364 days of the year? And even when we do think about gratitude at other times, does it admittedly often take a fairly superficial and fleeting form?

On today’s show, we’re exploring the deeper, “harder” side of gratitude with my guest, Dr. Robert Emmons. Robert is a bona fide expert in his field — a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis who pioneered much of the research on the science of gratitude. Robert explains what gratitude is, its benefits, and how to cultivate more of it in our lives. He also shares why much of the content out there about gratitude is what he calls “gratitude lite,” and he makes the case that we need to see gratitude as the ancients saw it—as a human virtue that requires a lifetime of intentional cultivation. We then explore the myths of gratitude out there, like the idea that counting your blessings can make you complacent. We end our show with some suggestions on how to nurture your gratitude daily, including some specific ideas to try on Thanksgiving.

Show Highlights

  • How do we define gratitude?
  • Why has the psychological study of gratitude generally been ignored?
  • Is gratitude a feeling?
  • The foundation of gratitude 
  • Why a lot of the talk about gratitude is what Emmons calls “gratitude lite” 
  • Gratitude as a virtue 
  • How gratitude can become selfish 
  • Myths about gratitude 
  • The connection between gratitude and purpose
  • How to be grateful in the midst of trial and tribulation 
  • The happy side effects — both emotional and physical — of cultivating gratitude 
  • How gratitude isn’t just a practice, but a character trait as well 
  • Are some people born more grateful than others? Is it a natural temperament?
  • How to deal with ingratitude in others
  • How kids learn gratitude 
  • So what can we do to develop the virtue of gratitude?
  • A case for acting on (some) emotional impulses 
  • Gratitude practices for families 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "The Little Book Of Gratitude" by Dr. Robert A Emmons.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. This Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the United States. It’s a holiday dedicated to gratitude, and one of which, we often trot out expressions of thankfulness, but how much is gratitude a part of our lives the other 364 days of the year? Even when we do think about gratitude at other times, is it immediately off and take a fairly superficial and fleeting form? Well, on today’s show, we’re exploring the deeper, harder side of gratitude with my guest, Dr. Robert Emmons.

Robert is a bonafide expert in this field, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis who pioneered much of the research on the science of gratitude. Robert explains what gratitude is, its benefits and how to cultivate more of it in our lives. He also shares why much of the content out there about gratitude is what he calls gratitude lite, and he makes the case that we need to see gratitude as the ancient side, as a human virtue that requires a lifetime of intentional cultivation. We then explore the myths of gratitude out there like the idea that counting your blessings can make you complacent, and we end our show with some suggestions on how you can nurture your gratitude daily, including specific ideas to try out on Thanksgiving. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at where you’ll find links to resources when we delve deeper into this topic.

All right, Robert Emmons, welcome to the show.

Robert Emmons: Thank you. It’s great to be with you today.

Brett McKay: You are a professor of psychology, but your expertise is on gratitude. It’s interesting because I’ve never heard of a professor of gratitude until I came across your work. What got you interested in studying gratitude? Was there some event that happened in your life that drew you to that subject?

Robert Emmons: Well, thank you. That’s a great question. It’s not too many of us that do this. There’s a few more now than there were back 20 years ago when I first started. It’s a very interesting story, and I won’t tell the whole thing because I don’t want to take up all of our time, but what got me in literally was that this was an assignment. I was actually asked or invited to study gratitude. I was going to a conference that some folks were arranging, and one of the topics that they wanted to discuss at this conference was gratitude. They said, “Okay, we don’t have an expert. We need someone to go out there and figure out and to canvas the research literature and come and tell us, what do we know about gratitude?”

Well, it turned out that we didn’t know anything about it because there was no research on the topic. I began conducting research right away, and it was awesome because it’s not often you can actually find something that’s been totally ignored or forgotten. For a long time, I was referring to gratitude as the forgotten factor in happiness research and in psychology, more generally, and so I set about to try to change that. It was really the best assignment I was ever given and still working on today, 20 years later. Normally, we choose what we want to study, but it seems like in this case, that gratitude chose me.

Brett McKay: Well, here’s an interesting question. Why had it been ignored for so long, because I mean gratitude is such an important part of human existence, right?

Robert Emmons: Well, it’s wild. I mean it goes so way back then that the ideas, what people have said about it. I mean we can go back a couple thousand years. I mean for centuries, philosophers and others who were around and writing about the human condition would say things like, “Gratitude is the greatest of the virtues. It’s the secret to life.” I think probably because it had been so associate with either philosophy or maybe religion and spirituality that psychology tended to overlook it, or it could be, it just was underestimated. I think, sometimes, we think it’s very simple. It’s just saying thank you, and it’s just a matter of politeness or manners or civility, and there’s really not much more interesting to it than that. It turns out that, that’s totally wrong.

Brett McKay: Well, then, that raises the next question. Okay, so gratitude in your work is, you say, it’s more than just saying thank you.

Robert Emmons: Yes.

Brett McKay: How exactly do you define gratitude?

Robert Emmons: Yeah, so I like to make a distinction because I’m a psychologist, and I traffic in the arena of ideas and definitions. We tend to muddy the waters very, very quickly and very easily, and so I don’t like to disappoint. The way I think about gratitude and define it is that I think it comes about as in terms of two steps or two stages of what I call information processing, so how the hell we make sense out of life. One is that we see some good things in life. We see goodness around us. Maybe we see goodness in us, in other people, and so we affirm that there are some good things. There are some benefits or blessings or gifts, whatever language you feel comfortable using. One is just affirming or acknowledging there are good things in my life.

Then, the second step or second stage is, recognizing that the source of this goodness is outside of us, all right? That’s so important. It’s so crucial. It makes all the difference seeing that this good thing is out there, but it’s being given to us for our benefit. It’s nothing we did to create it, to make it happen, right? Gratitude comes to us. It’s not created by us. It’s received. It’s not achieved, as I’ve said, and that makes all the difference, just this slight tweaking of how we think about it, so basically two words: affirmation and recognition of this goodness.

Brett McKay: This gratitude, would you decide, is it a feeling? Once you recognize and affirm, do you feel something?

Robert Emmons: Yes. Well, that’s part of the complexity of it. See, we just started our discussion, and already, we see there’s so many distinctions and layers and levels to it. It’s actually … It’s a feeling. It’s certainly an emotion, but it’s based on thinking. If we think a certain way, we have this feeling. If we see that other people are doing something for us, for example, providing us with the gift of benefit of kindness, a favor that we couldn’t necessarily provide for ourselves or was surprising, we know that they intended to benefit us, maybe has some cost, time, effort, whatever to themselves. Then, gratitude is the feeling that we have that results from this awareness or this perception of this other person providing us with this benefit. You’re right. It’s an emotion. It’s a feeling, but it’s based on thought.

Brett McKay: It sounds like it adds to the complexity of gratitude that it also requires humility because you have to recognize that you can’t do everything for yourself.

Robert Emmons: Beautiful. I mean humility is really the foundation, I think. This just sensing incompleteness, sensing imperfection, sensing that we are dependent upon others for who we are, where we are in life. I mean it’s really that. I think it begins with that fundamental awareness.

Brett McKay: One thing that’s interesting, as you said, 20 years ago, people weren’t really talking about gratitude in psychology, but thanks to your research, there’s been lots of talk on blogs and books, Oprah, gratitude journals and the like, and pop culture, but you know in your book that a lot of this attention takes form of what you call gratitude lite. What do you mean by that?

Robert Emmons: Yeah. You know, it seemed to me when I began studying this and reading some of the articles, the more popular sources or treatments of gratitude, some divorced from the traditional conceptions of gratitude as a virtue. Let me funnel what I mean by that. First that gratitude would often be reduced to a tactic or to a strategy for becoming happier, right, or becoming healthier or for living one’s best life now. It’s true that the practice of gratitude certainly does have consequence and implications for happiness, for joy, for satisfaction, contentment, all the things we seem to want out of life, but just to reduce it to that seemed to really cheapen it, I think, to result this, what I call this gratitude lite, L-I-T-E. It seems that to me, gratitude is more of a virtue. It really says something fundamental about who we are and has implications for how we should live our lives and what we should do and who we should be, how we should live. This is the language of virtue. It’s what makes life better for ourselves, as well as for others.

Just to reduce it to a set of five ways to become happier, and here’s one of them. List your blessing. Try to count your blessings. Do a little gratitude on the side. That may or may not work. Certainly, it could work in a short-term, but I think it lessens the value. It doesn’t do justice to the complexity of gratitude.

Brett McKay: You turn gratitude into a selfish thing, right? It’s like, “I’m doing this for me.” That’s like …

Robert Emmons: That’s right. You’re totally focused on how you’re doing, what’s your personal gain in this, and it just really distorts the meaning of it, which is really about the other person, right? It’s really about noticing. It’s also about giving back that you have received, so we know there’s this link between receiving and then giving back or paying forward the good that you’ve received and been provided. If the focus is totally on the self, it reduces that again to this tactic or this strategy.

Brett McKay: It sounds like, okay, you’re grateful like any virtue, right? We’re going back to Aristotle. You do the virtue for the sake of virtue.

Robert Emmons: Right.

Brett McKay: If you’re happy, that’s just a byproduct.

Robert Emmons: It’s a byproduct. It’s a side effect, and sometimes, we’re grateful, and it doesn’t make us happier. We’re grateful because we know it’s the right thing to do. It’s good to give credit, to thank people who have helped us who are bringing benefit and value to the world. It’s the right thing to do. I guess it’s part of a larger virtue. Maybe justice or something like that, right? We know the opposite of gratitude is certainly a tremendously negative vice that is ingratitude. That’s one of the worst things that people can say about you, that you’re ungrateful. Gratitude is a virtue, for sure, but in gratitude is an accusation, all right? It seems to me that if we don’t choose gratitude by default, we’re choosing ingratitude.

Brett McKay: As you’ve been talking, I noticed you’ve been talking about being grateful to someone, person, but I mean some things, we have just existence itself. It can’t be attributed to a single person, right?

Robert Emmons: Yes.

Brett McKay: I mean some people say it’s God or there’s evil. It’s just like, well, it’s just universe. Can you express gratitude for things like that like, “Oh, the sky is beautiful,” or whatever?

Robert Emmons: Absolutely because you’re seeing value, so it does fit the definition in a sense, in a broad sense, that is you’re seeing goodness. You’re affirming that there are good things in life, whether it’s life itself, whether it’s the sky, beautiful sunset, whether it’s freedom in democracy. I mean the list goes on and on, and people write these things down when they’re asked to keep a journal of what they’re grateful for. Also, they realize at the same time that we realize, you and me, that we didn’t do anything to bring this about, right? We did nothing to create the sunset or the blue sky or life itself, and so we see, we recognize that this is beyond ourselves. There is a difference, technically, I mean philosophically between gratitude to someone and gratitude for something, but it turns out, they tend to work the same way when it comes to enhancing our life and making our lives better in various ways.

Brett McKay: It requires that you have to be humble, realize things are there outside of yourself that you have.

Robert Emmons: That’s right.

Brett McKay: What are some of the myths that are out there about gratitude that you’ve seen pop up in the past few years?

Robert Emmons: Yeah. I’d say one of the big ones is that gratitude makes us complacent or actually lazy. I guess maybe a better way to phrase that is that gratitude undercuts ambition, so the idea is that if we’re grateful for something, it means we’re satisfied. We’re complacent. We’re not going to give any effort anymore. We just say, “I’m happy with what I have or what my situation is in life.” That’s it, right? “I’m not going to be motivated to do anything. I’ll just sit around,” lethargic, passive maybe. It turns out, totally false, right? I mean it couldn’t be more false. There’s a number of studies showing that gratitude actually motivates us to do more. It inspires us. It’s energized that it’s an engine for progress, as one author said, and so that’s one of the big myths. We can show that, that’s really false. It actually leads the opposite. It leads the person to be more inspired to give back, to be generous, to be more successful in achieving their goals.

Purpose and gratitude go together, so a grateful person is purpose-driven. They feel more energetic, more enthusiastic. They go out there, and they’re just more determined. Other people want to help them out because their relationships are stronger, more connected. Their relationships are strengthened through expressing gratitude, and so many times, of course, we need people to help us achieve our goals, and gratitude can be a facilitative force in that toward that purpose.

Brett McKay: We just had a podcast guest on talking about leadership in any organization. He said … We talked about how most people, they leave a job not because they’re not getting paid enough. Typically, they leave, they just don’t feel they’re appreciated. He’s making the point that what people want most often is, they want to be noticed and needed, and saying thank you seems like that’s one way to, I don’t know, encourage people to work harder and for you to work harder as well.

Robert Emmons: Yes, exactly. It’s one of the reasons why sometimes, it’s, I think, not as expressed as often as it could be in organizational settings, in workplaces, is because the belief that if I thank my employees, they’re going to be more satisfied or complacent and not try as hard, lose their edge. I mean I don’t know where that comes from, that idea, because it is totally false. It’s false in everyday life. The little research that we know that’s relevant to that also shows that gratitude is energizing. It’s inspiring, all right? If someone thanks you, if you get thanked around the house for doing an errand or a project or a chore, whatever, I mean you could be more likely to do it the next time. It just seems to me to be very common-sensical.

Brett McKay: Besides gratitude causing you to lose your edge, any other myths that you’ve seen out there?

Robert Emmons: Yeah, I think one of the ones that sometimes festers or surfaces is that gratitude is all fine and well when life is going well, when life is full of victories and success and benefits, and our relationship’s not firing on all cylinders, we’re healthy, kids are doing well, successful and so on. That’s when gratitude is okay. That’s when it’s strong. That’s where it has its potential, but it turns out that gratitude is also very, very beneficial. In fact, it even may be more important during difficult times, times of stress and struggle and trial and tribulation.

In the face of suffering, gratitude can be beneficial. Not that you’re grateful for these circumstances, right? I mean you lose stuff. I mean we’re going through a very terrible time in California right now with wildfires, and nobody’s grateful that we’ve lost everything, but sometimes, rising from the ashes is a feeling of thankfulness that we still have our family. We have opportunities. We have possibilities, and so we often see that people will choose gratitude as an attitude in difficult times. It helps them get through these times. It’s, I think, an aspect of resiliency that fuels and fires hope in a person’s life. That would be, I think, another myth that you can’t be grateful going through difficult times. Well, we know every day and every way that people are grateful even though they face big challenges in life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that really hit home to me because I’ve known in my life when I’ve had really hard times. I’m not grateful that I’m going through that specific hard time, but what I am grateful for are the people who come to my aid and comfort me and my family during the hard … You become more attuned and aware of that whenever you are. It makes it more acute to gratitude.

Robert Emmons: Well, I think it goes back to right what you said earlier, about humility, is that it forces us to become more dependent upon others. We realize in this situation that we can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t go at it alone, and again, while life is going well, you can live under this illusion of self-sufficiency and autonomy, but then, when life goes off the deep end, we get to the end of the rope, that’s when we realize how much we depend upon other people. That sets the stage for the feeling of gratitude.

Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about that we’re not grateful. We don’t exercise the virtue of gratitude just so we can feel better, but there are some happy side effects on working on the virtue, gratitude, so what are some of those happy side effects of gratitude?

Robert Emmons: Yeah. Right from the start, I mean that was the very first research project that I did, was to ask people to keep a gratitude journal, write down things that they were grateful for on a regular basis. It seemed to me that the philosophical literature and other writings, spiritual writings suggested there’s a link between a grateful focus and higher overall emotional functioning, and so we found that. We found that when people were in this gratitude focus condition, that is bringing it to awareness and calling their attention to it, their lives just improved many ways. Emotionally, they became happier, more joyful. They became more energetic. They became more attentive. Really, it brought a new lease to their lives is what people reported. Relationally, we found that people, when they are practicing gratitude, they felt closer, more connected to others, less lonely, less isolated. Emotionally, we found that they experienced less stress, less depression, less anxiety.

While gratitude was magnifying the good in their lives, it was also reducing or, I like to say, it’s rescuing us from the bad, from the negativity, from anxiety, from a sense of entitlement, a sense of resentment. All those things which rob us of our happiness. Gratitude works in both directions, amplifying or pumping up the good, and then reducing or rescuing us from the negative. Then, the third, improving and strengthening our relationships because gratitude really is another focused emotion. It makes our relationships stronger, more connected. It helps them. It keeps them from sputtering and conking out our relationships. I think that’s where, really, where gratitude has its biggest effect where you really see the power and potential of gratitude, is in the connective or relational aspect of life.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that the research on depression and anxiety was particularly interesting. Some of the research says, I mean, just exercising gratitude on a daily or weekly basis can have a profound impact on reducing feelings of depression and anxiety.

Robert Emmons: I mean it’s really protective in that sense, you know? I mean I think it’s really a simple incompatibility idea with different feelings that are really opposite. You can’t really be depressed and grateful at the same time. You can’t be depressed. You can’t be anxious and grateful at the same time. One of my gratitude heroes and mentors, he said that we’re never more than one grateful thought away from piece of heart, right? Calmness, contentment. He also said … The same person also said that gratitude makes us fearless, all right? Gratefulness and fearlessness, you can’t be …

See, when you look at life through a lens of gratitude, you tend to focus on things like abundance and safety, surplus, sufficiency, overflow. You think of all these terms which are more or less synonyms for each other or that they share a same conceptual space. It’s just common to see life that way, whereas if you focused more on a posture of insufficiency, deficit, insecurity, right? I mean that generates feelings of anxiety and then possibly depression if you believe that your situation is going to stay like that in the future. I think there’s just some … We’re just really starting to learn ways in which gratitude rescues us from conditions like depression and anxiety.

Brett McKay: Then, as you mentioned, it reduces stress, which not only affects you psychologically but physiologically as well too, so expressing gratitude on a regular basis can make you healthier.

Robert Emmons: Well, I mean some of the most amazing findings with respect to gratitude are exactly in that realm of physiology, the medical benefits that research is showing that gratitude is good medicine. It’s really amazing. That’s what really struck me right from the beginning, was that the practice of gratitude reaps benefits physiologically from things like just health behaviors like sleeping better, for example. We all need more sleep. We’re all sleep-deprived, and there’s about eight good solid studies linking better sleep quality and quantity to gratitude. Gratitude motivates people to exercise more. It reduces their blood pressure. It increases healthy cholesterol, right? I mean it’s amazing that something seemingly as simple and under the radar as gratitude can have so many health benefits. Now, the latest generation of research is trying to unpack this at a more molecular level, looking at clinical biomarkers of health and aging. Things like inflammation, for example. Things like the length of your telomeres in your chromosomes, which is related to aging. I think we’re going to uncover more and more ways in the next five to ten years showing that gratitude affects health through some of these physiological mechanisms.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s amazing, but again, to reiterate, you shouldn’t be grateful just so you can get these side effects. I think Viktor Frankl said something like, “If you make happiness your target, you’re going to miss all the time,” right?

Robert Emmons: That’s right. Happiness pursued eludes, right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Robert Emmons: If you don’t … I came up with the rest of the saying, but if you go for it indirectly, then you’ll be more successful, and I think that’s the way it is even with gratitude itself. Can you actually go directly at gratitude? I’m not so sure. Lately, I’m thinking it’s more like happiness, right, because if we go for it directly, we go back to where we were at the beginning, talking about it as this approach that is all focused on me and how am I doing, right? Am I more grateful than I was yesterday? Am I more grateful than the person next door and the person in the bed next to me? We start to engage in this comparison process, which can be very deadly for our happiness. If we focus on gratitude, it takes our focus off of ourselves, not how we’re doing, but really how other people have helped us out, right? I talk about how gratitude as a checklist form of happiness or to-do list.

“I’m going to put it on my list today. I’m going to take five minutes. I’m going to count my blessings, and then, that’s it. Boom. I can check that off. I’ve done that task for the day,” and I just don’t think it’s that accurate or that effective. It has to be really more integrated into everyday life. It can’t be something that we just add on or tack on, because it’s really not an app that we can add on. It’s an entirely new operating system. I’ve written about that, and I think that really seems to mesh with th psychological and medical research.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it sounds like gratitude is a mindset. You have to have a more open and aware mindset so that you notice things that you can be grateful when they do pop up. If you’re just narrowed focus and trying to look for it, you’re probably going to miss things that you otherwise would have saw if you had a more open focus.

Robert Emmons: Right. You don’t miss them, or you take them for granted, or you think that you deserve them, right? The language that we use, the internal monologue or dialogue inside, it’s just so important. A good thing can happen, and two people could equally notice the good thing but one expected it, right? One felt that they deserved it, that they were entitled to it. The other one said, “No, this is above and beyond what I thought I was going to get.” This is an example of surplus or abundance. They were surprised by it, and the emotional reaction will be 180 degrees opposite in those two cases.

Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about gratitude, so it’s a virtue that’s something you practice like Aristotle said, but it’s also a character trait that you develop-

Robert Emmons: Yes.

Brett McKay: With you practicing the virtue. I mean is gratitude like a temperament or related to temperament like, I guess, neuroticism or some of the other ones?

Robert Emmons: Right.

Brett McKay: Some people were born or some people … I guess the question I’m asking, are some people born more grateful than others?

Robert Emmons: Yeah, I don’t think so. I mean I think we all have the capacity for it, right? There’s a potential for it, right, like kindness, for example, all right, or generosity or humility or any of these other virtues that are in most people’s lists of basic human virtues, but I think it has to be flushed out. I think it has to be taught, or it could be caught by having appropriate role models, whether they’re parents or teachers or mentors or whoever. We know there’s differences between people and the capacity for gratitude even within the same family. I mean I have two sons, and one of them is much more grateful than we other one. We think we did the same thing, treated them, raised them the same way, but they turned out to be very different. There hasn’t been a whole lot of biological studies looking at factors or heritability with gratitude. It doesn’t seem to be quite as strongly wired in as some of the other ones that you mentioned like extroversion or emotional stability. I think some of these probably change our potential for gratitude.

I think it’s much easier for an extroverted person than the one who’s agreeable and more emotionally stable. To be grateful, it tends to go along with those qualities. Empathy, humility, as you mentioned, and a person who is more maybe introvert or less agreeable, more prone to negative emotionality is going to have a more difficult time, but I think we know this from our research and from the research taking place all around the world that people can learn gratitude. Many of those who show the most gain in changes in gratitude are the ones who had the most work to do, are the ones who started it in the more negative side of the spectrum. They show the most benefits from a gratitude practice.

Brett McKay: All right, that’s good, so it is learnable. You can get better at it. It’s a skill that you can develop and acquire.

Robert Emmons: I mean I wouldn’t do this stuff if I didn’t learn it, you know? I would be in some other line of work, right, but you’re right. There is a dogma in psychology, especially, I know I was trained in personality psychology 30 years ago, 32 years ago when I got my PhD. The dogma was that you can’t change personality. It’s set in stone. It’s hardwired in there, and you can’t do much about it. A person who’s extroverted at age eight is going to be the same at 18, 38 and 88, right? Now, we know that with some practice, you can move some of these dimensions around, and gratitude seems to be one of those that is modifiable with some practice.

Brett McKay: Before we get into tactics … I know we’ve been talking about gratitude tactics but things we can do to develop this skill in the mindset of gratitude. I want to ask this. I wondering about the flip side.

Robert Emmons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brett McKay: There was an essay that we published from our site from 1902 written by this guy named William George Jordan. It was called The Courage To Face Ingratitude. He’s talking about when you do kind things or good things for people, we often expect to be thanked for that, but oftentimes, because gratitude is often overlooked, we take things for granted, we don’t get thanked. How do you … I mean, I don’t know. Have you researched that at all? Not thanking but being thanked or how to deal with that?

Robert Emmons: I should read that article, first of all. It sounds very interesting. I mean one of the things I’ll often notice is that how closely and how carefully we monitor other people’s gratitude or lack thereof. It’s almost like we painstakingly monitor. We’re obsessed by it, and I know this is true because one of the questions I get asked most frequently when I give lectures and talks to public audiences on gratitude, almost invariably, not quite talk but more so than any other question is, “How can I get so-and-so,” fill in the blank, “To be more grateful?” Oh, it’s a son, it’s a daughter, it’s a teenager, it’s a spouse, it’s a co-worker. We’re obsessed with other people’s level of gratitude or usually, it’s ingratitude, right? We want to correct them. We want to fix them and change them and move them. There is something about it that it’s a signal to us, I think, in our relationships.

If you think about it, and I try to think about, why are we so obsessed with monitoring other people’s levels of gratitude? I think it’s because gratitude, being a virtue, is a signal that this is a good person, right? That this is a person we can trust. This is a person we can rely on, and so we’re making these judgements, usually at an unconscious level on a regular basis. That’s one piece of information that we use. Now, closer to home, we want that just because it’s being relational harmony, right? If we’re living with a person who is focused on the bad all the time, they’re focused on what life is lacking, they’re focused on this other end of the continuum dimension. They’re focused more on insufficiency and insecurity and a sense of resentment, entitlement. We know life is going to run more smoothly if they can at least move up to, maybe, a non-gratitude point on the scale as opposed to an ingratitude point on the scale. Yeah, we’re totally fixated on the other person and monitoring and then trying to do something about it.

Brett McKay: Right. It sounds like the more grateful you are, the more courage you have to face ingratitude or to be okay with it.

Robert Emmons: Well, you become a role model too for those people around you, right? Instead of worrying about fixing that person, maybe express more gratitude toward that person or for that person because gratitude is a virtue. It’s more often caught than taught, so there’s a few studies looking developmentally with parents and kids. They find that the best predictor of a child’s gratitude is the mother’s or the father’s gratitude. Then, it’s the expression of gratitude within the family, so becoming a role model, and then encouraging gratitude, reinforcing gratitude when you see it in your children is some of the best ways in which you can raise a grateful child.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about things we can do to exercise and develop the virtue of gratitude. We’ve been talking about gratitude journals. Does have to look a certain way? Is there a format, or is it just, you just free write and say, “This is what I’m grateful for,” yada-yada.

Robert Emmons: Yeah, you know, because so many studies now have been published that gratitude journal now seems to be an entire industry.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. You can buy journals that are gratitude journals now.

Robert Emmons: Oh, and there are ones developing a new one or a new twist on it, and so they’re developing an app that you can do gratitude journaling on your phone and so on. It turns out, it really doesn’t matter that much how you do it, whether you do it … For example, people ask me, “Well, should I journal at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day or during the day,” or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. I mean the point is that you’re doing something to pay attention to gratitude-inspiring events or circumstances in your life. Mean the journal works because it helps us to remember and to recall, and gratitude, if nothing else, it’s based on memory, right? Benefits, good things we’ve received, goodness in life and just becoming focused on that, so we don’t overlook them, so we don’t ignore them or take them for granted.

A lot of people don’t keep the journal at all, but they’re some of the most grateful people that I know. It’s just become more of a habit for them. It’s become more just a way of looking at life, a lens through which they view life. I mean that’s, ultimately, I think, where most people want to get to. That’s why I want to get to, why I do this stuff. What keeps me studying gratitude is because I know I need it and because I’m forgetful. I have to remember to practice gratitude everyday because everyday, I forget to practice gratitude because I’m forgetful like most people if we’re honest and admit that. It doesn’t really much matter how you do it.

Just doing it makes the difference. It doesn’t matter how often. There was a debate for a while there. If you do it too often, this will wear off. I guess, mean if you certainly did it in terms of this to-do list, write down five things and stop and do that several times a day, it’s going to get disruptive and start to feel like a burden. The last thing we want gratitude to do is to be a burden. Gratitude should make our life easier and make it freer and make it feel lighter. I think gratitude liberates us in a lot of ways, and if we see this as drudgery, as a to-do list, it’s going to have the opposite effect.

Brett McKay: Gratitude journal, it doesn’t matter how you do it. It can be really useful. I imagine a really more powerful way to express gratitude, to experience that virtue of gratitude is if you’re grateful towards a person, actually tell that person how grateful you are.

Robert Emmons: One of the most important studies that was published a couple of years did actually examine both a reflection, just the typical or traditional … The way I start it, just by having people write things that we’re grateful for and also had a second condition where they went on. They expressed that gratitude that they wrote about either through their social media or in person, person-to-person contact. As you would expect, that was more powerful. The combination of the private component with the public expression was more powerful than just the private expression, so it makes a lot of sense to me. Gratitude is an emotion, and emotions call for action.

There’s what psychologists call an action tendency associated with an emotion, right? When we’re angry, we want to strike out at someone. When we’re anxious or fearful, we want to avoid the situation that’s making us afraid. When we’re feeling love, affection, we want to move toward the object of our affection. When we’re grateful, we want to give back the goodness. We want to express that gratitude. We want to say thank you. Not having the opportunity to do so by just having private component, I think, underestimates its power and its potential. Certainly, the expression is a big part of why I think why gratitude works.

Brett McKay: Yeah. William James talked about it. I just got done. I was reading some William James the other day, and he talked about like, “You don’t want to let your emotions go to waste.”

Robert Emmons: That’s right.

Brett McKay: If you’re feeling something …

Robert Emmons: They’re there for a reason.

Brett McKay: Right.

Robert Emmons: They’re built in there. They’re an important function.

Brett McKay: Right, and he says, “If you feel something and you don’t take action, you’re just training your mind to not take action whenever you feel that emotion.”

Robert Emmons: Well, how many times do we feel a sense of regret, right? I mean we wish we had thanked that person. We wished we had done that, right? We wish we had written that letter. Now, it’s too late. Maybe we wish we expressed gratitude to that parent or grandparent or friend or teacher, a mentor. Now, they’re gone. We don’t want to have that unfinished business.

Brett McKay: What do you think? I mean this is Thanksgiving week. Do you have any gratitude practices you suggest families do together during the holiday season?

Robert Emmons: Right. I mean Thanksgiving course is a great time. I mean it explicitly draws us to this source of gratitude and sources in our lives, our annual gratitude holiday. Of course, it doesn’t have to be just Thanksgiving. I have been giving this some thought, especially with yesterday or Sunday being Veteran’s Day. I mean that’s a gratitude holiday. Most holidays are actually gratitude holidays, when you think about it. We’re celebrating. We’re remembering mother’s day, father’s day, right? I mean the list goes on and on, but gratitude and Thanksgiving course go hand-in-hand. It’s very valuable just because, at least, for one day, no matter how ungrateful or how forgetful we are the rest of the year, at least one day, our attention is called toward gratitude. The key, to me, at least as someone who studies this and thinks you should be grateful on a daily basis, not just that one day but the other 364 is that we shouldn’t leave gratitude on the Thanksgiving table, right?

It’s such a waste of opportunity, and so I mean everyone has their own rituals and their own practices, whether it’s the traditional going around the table and saying what you’re grateful for this Thanksgiving, or just families with smaller children will have other rituals that will be more practical and more focused on doing something, right? Whether it’s giving away a gift to someone in the community, whether it’s drawing a picture of something that you’re grateful for. I think a really useful thing to do within families is to do a genealogy, like a family tree. It doesn’t have to be that complicated and involved, but I think it’s important for people to know where they came from, right? Who made them, in a sense, right? Their ancestry, and that can help us go back generations and help us show that where we are today and who we are today is based on those who came before us.

That can be very satisfying and helpful within families, especially nowadays when families are so scattered. You don’t know. My kids don’t know … Their grandparents on my wife’s side are living in the other side of the country. My parents have both passed on now, so they don’t have that, so just knowing that where they came from, this genealogy can be super important in helping us develop a sense of gratitude for who we are and where we came from.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ve seen studies too that when kids know about their genealogy, they’re somehow more resilient because they can see that they’re not the reason of their existence. There are other people that came before them.

Robert Emmons: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Also, they can see the stories of their ancestors saying, “Well, great, great grandpa sailed from Italy to here and hit on hard times, but through hard work, he got up. Then, oh, this hard time happened, but he got over it.” You can see resilience in your own family. Then, you’d think, “Well, if great, great whatever is able to do that, I’m able to handle my problems.”

Robert Emmons: That’s excellent. Just seeing that as part of your identity, who you are. I’m an Emmons or I’m a Robinson, whoever it is, right? It’s like this is who we are, right, and so whether it’s relatives or just how our lives have been made more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who came before us, right, and why shouldn’t that be also the focus of Thanksgiving. You see, Thanksgiving as a time to practice gratitude is simply a chance to focus on the unseen, the unseen heroes, the unseen people or processes or forces that gave us the opportunities that we have right now. All of that ties into, I think, very nicely to this particular holiday.

Brett McKay: Well, Robert, is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?

Robert Emmons: Well, I’ve written several books, trade books on gratitude that share the science of gratitude, share the practices of gratitude and how to get more of it or how do we let gratitude more of us, which I think is an interesting way to approach this challenge as well, and so you can go to Amazon, the usual pons, the usually suspects online and check out. My first book was called thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Gratitude Works, which was my second book is a little bit more practice-focused that includes a 21-day challenge for deepening one’s level of gratitude with several different practices. Then, my last book, which is, I think, my favorite is called The Little Book of Gratitude. That has a lot of actionable techniques, about 35 specific exercises and practices that a person can engage just to practice gratitude, to build this into their lives so that they can capitalize on the power and potential of gratitude to heal, to energize and to change their lives. Your local bookstore, if you still have one or online, those three would be the top picks.

Brett McKay: Well, Robert, thank you for coming on. This has been an absolute pleasure.

Robert Emmons: Well, the pleasure’s mine. Thank you for having me. Happy thanksgiving to your listeners.

Brett McKay: Happy thanksgiving to you.

Robert Emmons: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Robert Emmons. He is the author of several books on gratitude including his latest, The Little Book of Gratitude. All of them are available on Also, check out our show notes at where you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed this show, you’ve got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTUnes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. I really do. I am grateful for your support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you, happy thanksgiving, and stay manly.

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