Gratitude: So Easy to Feel, So Hard to Explain – The Gratitude Project Series Part 1

By Donald Officer

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others”

Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106BCE – 43 BCE)

Summary – The Gratitude Project is a multi-year research study which explores gratitude’s deep roots in human psychology.  Gratitude is powerful technique to to increase our well-being in many ways.  Grateful Leadership however is much more than saying “thank you” all the time, as it must be applied in the proper context and timing.  There are times when mistakes will be made or disciplinary actions are needed. A spirit of gratitude & care can even help in these situations.  This research project is more than just platitudes — as it offers a blueprint for a new and better world.

The Gratitude Project

This post is the first of a series about a hard to pigeonhole, but easy to read book released in the second half of this memorable, if difficult year. The Gratitude Project: How the science of thankfulness can rewire our brains for resilience, optimism, and the greater good was developed by a strong editorial team which carefully selected their learned and experienced contributors.

How might this many faceted publication be best described? Is it a summary of the science? Yes, in some measure, by certain contributors. Is it a self-help book? Some segments, especially those fashioned by teams of contributors fit this category: like many inspirational titles, the Project as a whole is an aid to some very high-level self-development. Is it a survey collection, a panoramic snapshot of findings and reflections? This descriptive comes closer. Some contributions are anecdotal while overall the book explores the emotion’s whole complex range.

Should you read The Gratitude Project clean through or dip into it randomly in no particular sequence? Either really. The material is consistently thought provoking, but different pieces target different parts of your brain. Threads wend their way throughout building on earlier segments, but the reader still learns something striking when the whole volume is approached like a kaleidoscope with new revelations appearing at each and every turn.

I saw this book as a kind of almanac, entertaining like the famous almanacs of old, but, with all due respect to the old-timers, more reliable in its forecasting and credible in its sourcing. Another rewarding aspect of a work like this one lies in its emotionally and contextually varied qualities. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Shana Serrano, a good friend of The Center for Grateful Leadership, who is planning a doctoral dissertation based on her investigation of the practice of Grateful Leadership.

One comment she made during our conversation lingers in my thoughts, “Grateful leadership is not the same as simple gratitude.” She stated that as a basic premise of her qualitative research plan. She has a point. Like any student of chemistry, we must start with the well-founded appreciation that combination do not necessarily exhibit the qualities of their separate elements. Side by side hydrogen and oxygen never become water without complex intervention.

Gratitude resists attempts to classify and measure it which is a surprising caution this mostly optimistic account provides. Gratitude can fall short, be misapplied or even backfire. Yet recognize it as more than a mood, virtue or even a trait, and the positive possibilities of gratitude in any equation are endless. Overall, this “parent” of all other emotions triggers a virtuous circle well worth its risks, all of which are correctible, if you persevere. In our coming posts where we unpack The Gratitude Project, we’ll explore the most dynamic facets of gratitude, particularly as they apply to grateful leadership and as they’ve been highlighted by this collection.

In the new year we begin our scrutiny of The Gratitude Project in real detail by first considering the genetic origins of gratitude, then its biological, conceptual, and social roots. What does the evidence reveal so far and where should we look for it? Next, we explore how the practice grows and spreads. We consider the changes this seminal emotion produces as well as the differences it makes for both those who practice it and those who benefit from it. By way of illustration, we draw on grateful leadership accounts.

Unfortunately, in our own personal worlds, we already recognize that much gratitude remains unexpressed or is at best poorly articulated. Who is not guiltless? Appreciating this, The Gratitude Project editors do everyone a valuable service with concise how-to summaries of personal practices, common pitfalls, and more straightforward solutions while illustrating the huge upside of any practice leveraging gratitude’s powerful post traumatic growth potential.

In upcoming posts, we explore how the authors and editors of The Gratitude Project ponder the vast accumulative potential of gratitude in a powerful summary of the broader, longer-term strategies of mindful gratitude leadership. In the last post in our series, readers will see just what gratitude means to leaders. The Gratitude Project goal is to complete the virtuous circle, amplify impact understanding and avoid those misleading tangents or dead ends anyone might unwittingly stumble into. In our concluding column on this book, the reader will also be left with an appreciation of what the book’s whole project team works so hard to help us realize.

Among the contributors to The Gratitude Project are its editors: Jeremy Adam Smith, editor of the Greater Good Magazine; Kira M. Newman, managing editor of the Greater Good Magazine; Jason Marsh, founding editor of the Greater Good Magazine; and Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Also among the noteworthy contributors are eminent scholars like Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude; several well-known positive psychology researchers like Sonja Lyubomirsky (The How of Happiness); and David DeSteno (Emotional Success) and more. Exceptional gratitude leaders and mainstream journalists among the credits include psychotherapist and author Nathan Greene; communications professional Catherine Brozena: and prolific author-journalist Arianna Huffington founder of The Huffington Post.

As promised, we’ll have more on all of the above in forthcoming gratitude posts. Meanwhile, all the best of the season to every one of you! Remember to reward yourself with a great read today.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.