Getting to Know the Keynote Speakers: Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Emiliana Simon-Thomas

"A Scientific Perspective: The Origins, Promise, and Practice of Gratitude"
Thursday, October 4

Tell us about you!

I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas and I’m the science director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. I keep track of emerging scientific research on how important our social connections, our tendency toward kindness and generosity, and our sense of meaningful belonging and community and society are to our health, happiness and well-being. I teach a massive open online course called “The Science of Happiness” on the edX platform and I’m on the verge of teaching three new courses focused on the science of happiness at work beginning in September, also on the edX platform. I run our research scholarship program, which gives funding to students on campus who are studying topics that are relevant to our mission as a center, including human kindness, “pro-social” states (experiences that orient us toward the welfare of others), and how to cultivate or catalyze these experiences and skills and characteristics out in the world.

I also run bigger, topically-themed initiatives. For example, we ran a seven-year project called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. It involved a big grant initiative for faculty around the country who were studying gratitude in various different capacities and lots of other fun aspects of getting the word out and promoting the science.

What brought you to the science of gratitude?

I was trained in neuroscience and psychology, and I was just really interested in the role that emotions played in thinking. I had personal reasons to push back against the very popular claim that emotions are the enemy of reason—that somehow, we can’t make good decisions when we listen to our emotions.

I started out working with patients who suffered damage to a region of their brain called the orbital frontal cortex, which carries the signals that are representing emotions to other areas of the cortex that are involved in decision making. One might suspect, if you embrace the idea that emotions somehow are intrusive or distracting to our capacity to make good decisions, that this would be an advantageous state. Actually, while people with this unlucky condition do show preserved performance on some aspects of an intelligence test, they’re highly incapable of functioning normally in society. They tend to be overly impulsive. They tend to make decisions that really aren’t productive or constructive for themselves. So, I had more evidence to support my sense that, in fact, emotions are very important to how we think about ourselves and other people and how we make functional, adaptive, and constructive decisions.

How does your work relate to the fields of philanthropy and donor relations?

A common perspective is that being generous or philanthropic or charitable is obligatory, depleting, something that we do to satisfy some kind of expectation or duty and, ultimately, is not really rewarding personally.

The other way of thinking about generosity is that it’s actually fundamentally baked into our biology to benefit from our own acts of generosity and the ways we invest our own resources in the welfare of others.

The second perspective is actually what truly is backed up by science. When we put people into a brain scanner and give them the chance to make a choice that is self-interested or generous, and measure activation of structures in the brain that signal pleasure and reward, both of alternatives activate these systems.

As an ultrasocial species, we’re wired to actually enjoy giving from ourselves to invest in the welfare of others. Gratitude is kind of the language of that dynamic in that, when people are behaving in a generous way and they have the chance to interact with the recipients or the beneficiary of their benevolence, gratitude like the enhancer of that original reward state. And so, when we can get better at employing gratitude and using gratitude to tune into that basic aspect of our humanity, we’re living a more truly, empirically valid life. What we do matches our potential as evidenced by scientific research.

Wow. That really validates what we do in donor relations and stewardship!

Yeah! In a secondary way, donor relations professionals are giving an opportunity to a fellow human to tap into this delightful experience and potential. If I am somebody who is in a position where I possess an inordinate degree of resources and I have more than I need, it’s actually an incredible privilege to be in that position and be able to share and support others in a meaningful way.

I think our popular cultural narrative often frames things differently. People feel like they have to hold on and hoard and worry about the future, rather than tapping into this more fundamental present-moment opportunity to feel good by serving others. Donor relations professionals are kind of like the guides for people with incredible resources to tap into this experience.

There’s a whole other science about how beneficial gratitude is to health and well-being. People who are more grateful tend to feel more positive emotions more readily and easily. The more grateful tend to be less ruminative or vigilant to threat or distracted by their own personal struggles. They tend to have more satisfying relationships. They have lower blood pressure. They’re better at handling adversity and recovering from setbacks. In a way, when the donor can share a moment of gratitude with the person that they have supported, it’s a double benefit to the donor themselves.

Is there one thing in your keynote that you think will really surprise people?

The other fun surprise about gratitude is that the real problem isn’t that people are not grateful. In fact, most people, when surveyed, report that gratitude is incredibly important. They value it as a fundamental human virtue and they aspire to be as grateful as they can. But at the same time, when asked how grateful they think society is, or how grateful humans are in general, most people report that they perceive gratitude to be declining.

The real pitfall appears to be that we don’t hear enough of gratitude in the kind of rich and authentic way that is convincing. Instead, a lot of the moments where we can be grateful, instead are treated as transactional. In the workplace, if somebody you manage does something really well, we’re unlikely to actually thank them for the heartfelt passion they put into doing that because there’s this idea of, “oh, well they get paid for it, so I don’t actually have to thank them.” Also, in relationships between spouses, people just tend to get used to other people’s contributions to the goodness that they experience in their life and ultimately take it for granted.

There’s incredible potential that we all have in actually just saying “thank you” more to others. People tend to then say it back to us. We tend to feel more grateful. The hope is that, through increasing habits of expressing gratitude openly and thoroughly, perhaps that perception that gratitude is diminishing in the world will reverse. It’s about getting in the habit of saying thank you and saying it in a way that really touches another person.

Why do attendees need to hear your keynote, and what do you hope they take away from it?

Donor relations professionals are at the hub of opportunity for leveraging gratitude for good. You’re in the middle of an interaction where people are engaging in a highly pro-social act. To be able to flesh out to both members of that dynamic why that is of benefit to their health and well-being is important.

I hope they take away a conviction to go out and bring out the intrinsic and innate benefits of philanthropy to donors and maximize their potential to have experiences of gratitude.

I think that one of the biggest sources of stress for humans is that we’re less able to actually help others than we’d like to be able to—for lack of time, lack of infinite resources, or lack of energy. Donors, in a strange way, are in this coveted position of having the resources to help other people more than most of us might feel like we’re able to. In a funny way, that’s something to be grateful for.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.