Express thanks online, get happier with new Cal study

The staff of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, from left to right: Dacher Keltner, Vicki Zakrzewski, Christine Carter; Ann Shulman, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Jason Marsh, Jeremy Adam Smith and Jesse Antin, and Elna Brunckhorst. Photo: Elyna Anderson

With gratitude on everyone’s mind this week, a recently launched online study at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center makes it easy to, in one fell swoop, give thanks and contribute to a growing body of research on the subject.

The endeavor is based on the work of UC Davis psychology professor Bob Emmons, who has found that students who kept gratitude journals for a short period of time experienced strengthened resilience, became less vulnerable to daily stresses and suffered less from minor health complaints such as rashes and headaches.

Emmons teamed up with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley to launch a new website, Thnx4.org, earlier this month. The website functions as an interactive, shareable gratitude journal, as well as an online database for researchers who are studying gratitude. Entries made by participants are kept private (for research purposes only) unless participants elect to share them, either via an anonymous public feed or through their own social networks.

According to a statement released by the team behind Thnx4: “The project is part of a $5.6 million, three-year national effort called ‘Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude,’ funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Some $3.1 million of that money came to the Greater Good Science Center, which designed Thnx4.org with the twin goals of conducting research and educating people about the power of gratitude. The center also is dispensing research grant money to postdocs and graduate students nationwide.”

A screenshot from Thnx4.org. Source: Greater Good Science Center

The website launched earlier this month and already has met its initial goal of signing up more than 1,000 participants in November, said Jeremy Adam Smith, web editor for the science center.

Studies consistently show, noted Smith on Wednesday, that people who keep a gratitude journal are 25% happier than those who don’t. (See tips here for how to keep your journal.)

“Emmons says that gratitude works, in part, because you’re affirming that there are good things in life,” said Smith. “If you thank somebody, that’s affirming the relationship and strengthening social ties.”

As part of the study’s launch, the research team created the Cal Gratitude Challenge, asking participants affiliated with Cal to use the website to keep a two-week ‘gratitude journal’ during November and, if they choose, to share their posts with others. The Challenge takes 14 consecutive days for 5-10 minutes a day, and people without Cal connections are also welcome and invited to use the site. (Learn more here.)

The website will be live and publicly available for at least the duration of the three-year project, so even participants who don’t jump in this month can sign up to be part of the study, and use the site’s tools to track their progress.

In addition to a short questionnaire before signing up to access the journal, site participants also are asked to complete a survey after two weeks, so they can get feedback about how 14 days of gratitude awareness affected their state of mind. They also receive daily prompts to capture moments of thankfulness, and tips on how to enhance gratitude.

Thnx4.org logo. Source: Greater Good Science Center

Smith said the website is still in development and will change and improve with suggestions from participants going forward. In the future, participants will receive even more feedback on their personality, and have the chance to fulfill more challenges about ways to make gratitude a regular practice.

Developers also plan to “add another layer of gamefulness” to the site, he said, to engage participants and make the interface more fun to use. (The site doesn’t have a mobile app, but it was designed to be optimized for use on mobile devices of all kinds.)

According to its founders, the results of Thnx4.org — including basic demographics and information on what kinds of things make people grateful and how keeping the journal affects them — will provide a rich database for exploration by gratitude researchers. The concept has been designed to be flexible, so it can be repeated in modified forms for populations all over the world.

Smith said, thus far, there has been a bit of skepticism about the endeavor in the media from people who have taken issue with the importance of studying positive behaviors. He noted a “longterm bias in favor of negativity” (such as depression, violence, addiction, etc.) in much of the psychological research.

“In recent years that’s changed,” he said. “We’re trying to ask: What works? In what conditions do we become more grateful? What impact does this have on happiness? What role does forgiveness play? What causes forgiveness and empathy to flourish?”

Related articles via the Greater Good Science Center:

Related:
Greater Good Science Center: On the fine art of gratitude [06.22.12]

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  • happy and i know it

    I am thankful for this article, for berkeleyside, for the greater good center and the absence of snarky comments on this page!

  • Dave Johnston

    Gratitude is all that and much more. Gratitude is the Greatest attitude. Gratitude is the law of multiplication: “He who is thankful in all things will be made glorious, and the things of the earth will be added to him a hundred fold, yea more.” If you have only a dollar, gives thanks for it and it will be multiplied into 100 dollars. But don’t take my word for it. Live it and you will see.