The Surprising Gift of Gratitude

A powerful practice from positive psychology

Posted Dec 10, 2016

Andrew Dunn, 27 September 2005, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Source: Andrew Dunn, 27 September 2005, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Gratitude can literally change our lives, according to psychologist Robert Emmons, the leading researcher in the field. Research has shown that it reduces stress, depression, and insomnia while increasing self-esteem, and improving relationships, willpower, and performance (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010).

When we find ourselves caught up in stress and rumination, Emmons says, gratitude  enables us to “take charge of our emotional lives” (2016, p. 21). In his new Little Book of Gratitude (2016), he explains that gratitude combines affirmation with recognition: “We affirm the good and credit others with bringing it about” (p. 14). And feeling grateful  transforms our world view. When we recognize that we’ve been given a gift, we begin to see the world differently.

As Emmons explains, “we affirm the good in our life and recognize that the source of this goodness is outside of us. We see that people and other agents are doing things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.” Gratitude expands our world, he says: “instead of being self-absorbed, grateful people are absorbed by the good being done for them.”

Like the radiant arc of a rainbow, gratitude brings an “arc” of positivity to our lives:

A-Amplifying the good,
R-Rescuing us from negativity and rumination, and
C-Connecting us to others. (2016, pp. 31-33).

Creating supportive community, gratitude has the greatest impact on our relationships.  Emmons says that “after all, humans were built for relationships. We have an innate longing for belonging, an urge to merge.” And gratitude inspires us to act—“has a clearly specified action tendency connected to it.” As he explains, “When we give away the goodness—a phrase I like because it implies that we express gratitude by using our own gifts, talents, abilities and so on instead of keeping them to ourselves or otherwise squandering them--gratitude becomes thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a word of action. So gratitude becomes not all about us. This is the most important lesson that I have learned in my decade and a half of studying gratitude—don’t focus on yourself!”

The Little Book of Gratitude is filled with practical exercises and insights on how gratitude can improve our relationships, our health and performance, bringing us greater joy and meaning and enhancing our spiritual lives

Research has even shown that expressing gratitude helps us deal with traumatic experiences. Psychologists at the University of Eastern Washington found that when people wrote about “open memories” of unresolved traumatic events and described the positive consequences they could now be grateful for, they experienced emotional closure and a dramatic reduction in intrusive thoughts and rumination (Watkins, Cruz, Holben, & Kolts, 2008).

This holiday season, I’ve been keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing more thank you notes, giving The Little Book of Gratitude to friends, and feeling a new rainbow of joy in my life from the surprising gift of gratitude.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web sites at



Emmons, R. A. (2016). The little book of gratitude: Create a life of happiness and wellbeing by giving thanks. New York, NY: Hachette.

Emmons, R. (2016, December 8). Personal communication. I am grateful to Robert Emmons for answering my questions with the quotes in paragraphs 3 and 5.

Watkins, P. C., Cruz, L. Holben, H., & Kolts, R. L. (2008). Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 87-99. doi: 10.1080/17439760701760567.

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890-905. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005.