Science center grants $3 million to promote understanding of gratitude

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Though Thanksgiving may be the only day in the year dedicated to the expression of gratitude, the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley recently launched a research initiative that may prompt people to consider giving thanks on a daily basis.

The $3 million initiative aims to expand scientists’ understanding of gratitude by awarding grants to various research teams across the nation. The grants, which range in value from $168,000 to $338,000, will help researchers explore different topics related to gratitude, like how to cultivate gratitude in a consumer society, how parents socialize their kids for gratitude and what neural systems support gratitude, according the center’s website.

Past research has shown that the expression of gratitude can lead to positive mental and physical benefits, which can include fewer headaches and stomachaches, and better cardiovascular health, said Jeremy Smith, the web editor of the Greater Good Science Center. The center, launched in 2001, studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being.

“The physical benefits are what really surprised scientists,” Smith said. “It just goes to show that the mind-body link has become really established.”

The research initiative is part of a three-year $5.9 million project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, a collaborative effort between the center and UC Davis. The project is a means to expand the scientific database of gratitude in the areas of human health, personal and relational well-being and developmental science.

One of the grant winners, Naomi Eisenberger, an assistant professor in social psychology at UCLA, will look at the effects of gratitude on the rate of inflammation in adults ages 35 to 50. Eisenberger said that her research team will look at these rates on study participants before and after a six-week period during which participants will be required to make active efforts at expressing gratitude. She said she believes that vocalizing gratitude will reduce the rates of inflammation, which is a precursor to chronic conditions.

“The primary function of gratitude is to give back to others and it relies on care-giving neurological circuit regions within the brain,” Eisenberger said. “These regions are essential for taking care of offspring and reducing threat-responding mechanisms like inflammation.”

In addition to the research grants, the center endowed dissertation research awards and has launched a collaborative project between UC Berkeley and Hofstra University to look at the development of gratitude in children and adolescents.

The center is also behind public education campaigns. Earlier this month, center researchers launched the website, an interactive, online gratitude journal that allows users to document moments of thankfulness for a two week period and share their posts with others.

Unrelated to the center’s efforts, a Facebook page called UC Berkeley Compliments, created right before Thanksgiving, allows members of the campus community to anonymously write compliments and express appreciation for others, which will then be seen by the public. The page has since become a hit and currently has over 1,100 friends.

Smith praised the idea behind the page, and said the Greater Good Science Center aims to catalyze projects exactly like it.

“Gratitude fosters positive relationships between people,” Smith said. “But gratitude is also one of the harder things to express.”

Pooja Mhatre covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].