Closer to the present, the pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow, who in the 1960s developed the academic theory of self-actualization, which holds that human beings satisfy their needs in stages, beginning with physical and gradually rising to "transpersonal" or spiritual needs, before his death in 1970 wrote that he despaired of the lack of gratitude he saw in society. People's lives were getting better, Maslow wrote, and yet most seemed to be taking their blessings for granted.
Why aren't men and women today more aware of the value of gratitude? One reason, Emmons thinks, is the modern emphasis on self-reliance. Society conditions us to be self-made and independent. In that context, we don't want to think about our indebtedness to others, including those who came before us.
The decline of intellectual respect for faith seems another factor. Mainstream academics and intellectuals now look down on the idea of gratitude toward God as a rote church doctrine or even a primitive superstition. Other aspects of the modern milieu assume that the universe is just here, a product of soulless deterministic forces--and if mindless chemistry gave us life, why should anyone feel thankful for a meaningless molecular coincidence?
Yet religious feelings of gratitude should not be seen as belittling: When a person of faith thanks the divine for being granted life, he or she is expressing the joy that comes from knowing, God wanted me to exist. And as McAdams notes, "You do not need to hold any particular religious belief to feel gratitude in the cosmic sense for the fact that life is precious and we are fortunate to experience it." Regardless of whether there is a divine, we can still feel grateful for the knowledge that something must have made us.
Today researchers are beginning to study gratitude as part of the broader "positive psychology" movement that seeks to understand, not why some people become mentally ill, but why others become happy, optimistic, and altruistic. A sense of thankfulness for life, for the help and achievements of others, for the chance to experience each day's sunrise, seems to be part of making psychology positive. Thus it is in our self-interest to feel grateful because it helps enrich our own experience of life. Thanksgiving, in this view, should be every day of every year.