Practicing gratitude appears to work for Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who will talk up the science of gratitude at an event Saturday. Photo: Mike DeSerio

Practicing gratitude is all the rage (witness the popularity of Oprah’s gratitude game) and perhaps a perfect Berkeley-based pastime — when peace-loving residents aren’t embroiled in road rage in the parking lot at a Berkeley Bowl.

Indeed, since 2001 the good people at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center have taken it upon themselves to study the fine art of gratitude. Beginning in 2004 they launched the Greater Good magazine (now solely online) and the site also features the award-winning Raising Happiness blog, aimed at parents, who, on any given day, may need a gentle reminder about the joy to be found in rearing offspring — whether babies, toddlers, or teens.

Why is gratitude good? Feeling a sense of abundance, an enjoyment of simple pleasures, and an appreciation of others can lead to stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure, more joy, optimism, happiness, and other positive emotions, increased generosity and compassion, and decreased loneliness and isolation, scientists suggest.

And, thanks to the center, further research in the area is imminent and may well tease out additional benefits of being grateful. The Greater Good Science Center is poised to administer funding — to the tune of close to $6 million — for a series of studies as part of a project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude.

Clearly, these scholars don’t take gratitude for granted. In March this year, researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas joined the team as their science director, leaving a previous post at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

The 39-year-old academic, who lives in the home she grew up in in the Lorin District, will speak on Saturday at the Pathways to Gratefulness conference in San Francisco. She spoke with Berkeleyside about gratitude from a personal and professional perspective this week.

Oprah jumps on the gratitude band wagon. Encourages thousands to give thanks

Everywhere you turn these days in the media the word “gratitude” or “gratefulness” seems to come up. Why the current interest in this phenomenon?

It’s prevalent now because so many people aren’t finding the help they seek in Western medicine and pharmaceutical interventions. For many, the answer isn’t simply to pop a pill, get happy, and go on with life. So then it’s a question of: What are we going to do to live a more positive life?

We also live in a time and place where many people have the trappings that they thought would bring happiness — a good job, nice house, kids in great schools, and access to organic food that they can eat every day — and yet still people’s satisfaction thresholds aren’t what they’d expect and so they’re reevaluating what it means to have a meaningful life in the context of the culture we live in.

What do you look for when measuring what a meaningful life looks like?

We focus on the interpersonal aspects that enhance gratitude, such as positive connections and an engagement with family, friends, and the community.  Trust is important: If we’re open to trust we have opportunities for cooperation. Giving is another one — there’s fun science that shows people who are given money to spend on others rather than on themselves feel more satisfied and content than those who spend the money on themselves.

A sense of playfulness is another: joking and gentle teasing can make us feel more grateful, as can a sense of awe, an appreciation of others, thinking optimistically, and paying attention. Research shows that we’re actually wired to share and give and take pleasure in doing so. Another study that highlights the importance of interpersonal connections looked at appropriate touch and found that basketball players who engage in positive physical contact with teammates — such as fist bumps and shoulder nudges — win more games than teams that don’t.

Let’s look at the big picture: What do we know from the scientific literature about the role gratitude plays in health and well-being?

The studies by psychologist Robert Emmons illustrate that when people regularly work on cultivating gratitude — such as keeping a gratitude journal —  they experience a variety of measurable benefits on the psychological, physical, and social front. His research found that people who focused on practicing gratitude were significantly happier, exercised more, and reported experiencing fewer physical ailments than those who didn’t.

On an anecdotal note: I recently returned to see a surgeon, two years post-op, for a painful, immobilizing spine condition that has since resurfaced. When I expressed disappointment in the result he said: ‘Why are you upset? You’re not paralyzed.’ Was his perspective fair and should I be grateful for such an outcome?

That surgeon’s response was inappropriate, insensitive, and dismissed your experience. He invalidated your feelings and didn’t acknowledge your suffering.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a surgeon who had shown kindness to ask what is wonderful in your life despite the pain. But his response comes off as proselytizing and patronizing. It’s hard to experience gratitude without compassion.

What’s next for the Greater Good Science Center?

We’re currently in the process of evaluating proposals we’ve received for research in this area — we have 61 full proposals submitted for research funding, and we’ll fund around 12 to 15 studies.

The areas of proposed research range from studying the brain to ascertain neurological mechanisms associated with gratitude, to evaluating gratitude interventions that may impact truancy, test scores, and other factors at school, to studying gratitude’s impact on stress related to unemployment, and examining its potential impact on pre-symptomatic heart conditions.

We’re also working on an interactive web-based gratitude platform using sophisticated techniques to  enhance someone’s practice of gratitude and collect meaningful data by embedding scientific measures in the program.

What are you grateful for?

I’m grateful for my two lovely daughters, ages 4 and 7, who are so kind and resilient, which I appreciate as a working mom. I’m grateful for my husband, who is a super helpful and involved father, which allows me to have a professional and academic life as well as a family. I’m grateful to my parents and my siblings: I’m one of five. We all live in Berkeley and I live in our former family home. I appreciate the warmth, comfort, and fulfillment that comes with having my family close.

There are pros and cons to everything, of course, but we’re focusing on gratitude. You may notice, given my academic area, I’m biased towards interpersonal connections that I’m thankful for.

I could talk about how grateful I am to have an abundance of local, seasonal, fresh produce available year round here in Berkeley. But that would just put the emphasis on my own personal health and well-being. What I’m grateful for is the farmers who grow the food and bring it to us and share it with us. It’s these interpersonal relationships that I truly savor the most.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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