11/01/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Gratitude Experiments

A popular dog food commercial depicts a female soldier returning home. As she walks through the gate, she's greeted by a huge, Irish Wolfhound, whose name is Rocky. He stands up on his hind legs, then puts his massive paws around her neck, as if to hug her. The final scene is both of them on the ground, Rocky lying on top of the girl, now calm and seemingly ecstatic. What is the message? I didn't think, "Buy dog food." I thought, "I'm witnessing a profound expression of gratitude."

Gratitude is a moment to moment decision. It doesn't take into account what happened yesterday or what's around the corner. If Rocky could talk he probably wouldn't be saying, "Why were you gone so long?" "Why did you leave me?" He is simply happy to have his loved one home and wants to let her know how grateful he is that she came back. He's not projecting into the future, "Why did she leave me?" or, "She will probably go away again." Rocky is reveling in the sweetness of the moment. That's the gift of gratitude. It is about being grateful for whatever is happening now, not thinking about the past or future.

How would you feel, if every night after work, you were greeted by a family member who welcomed you with the thankful exuberance displayed in the commercial? Happy? Loved? Glad to be home? The answer to this question gives you an inkling of the power of gratitude. But does giving or receiving thanks offer only immediate rewards, or does gratitude have far reaching benefits? What if you could live everyday feeling an abiding sense of gratitude -- no matter what? Would that have any effect on your life?

Professor of Psychology, Robert Emmons of UC Davis is acknowledged as today's pre-eminent expert on gratitude. His groundbreaking book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can Make You Happier (2007, Houghton Mifflin), narrowed the gap between science and hearsay on the subject. One of his studies, published first in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was entitled, "Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life." He examined the effect of a grateful outlook on one's well-being through three different studies involving the use of participants recording their moods and experience with gratitude. His findings showed that a conscious focus on blessings improved moods, coping skills, physical well-being and may have even greater emotional and interpersonal blessings.

Emmons says, "Gratitude is one of the few things that can measurably heal, energize and change people's lives. It is a turning of the mind, not what I don't have, but what I have already."

Roman emperor Marcus Arelius wrote, "Take full account of what excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not." This was in the second century. How much more do we have to be grateful for, nearly 2,000 years later?

My challenge to you is to begin to look for things in your life to be grateful for. Write them down or save them in your mobile device. Add to your list each day. At the end of the first week, you will truly be able to count your blessings. Think about gratitude. Live gratitude. Contemplate gratitude. Join a growing group of like-minded people around the world in Mentors Channel, free online series, 21 Days of Gratitude. You can "turn your mind," as Professor Emmons says, to what you have. Try it. You may see magical results.


For more by Dr. Marcia Hootman, click here.

For more on meditation, click here.