On other days, we're supposed to feel thankful if someone does us a favor, or fortune smiles. For those who are religious, gratefulness before God is indispensable. And kids, when you get presents, you simply must send thank-you notes! But that's about it for gratitude, which has never finished high on the list of sentiments men and women are taught to cultivate, nor attracted many researchers studying elements central to psychological health.
What if that view is wrong? Suppose thankfulness were not only among our most important positive emotions, but one that links directly to physical and mental well-being. Suppose it is in our self-interest to feel gratitude because it makes us better people. Surprisingly, that is what research is beginning to indicate.
Consider that recent academic studies have shown:
- People who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others and either to God or to creation in general tend to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole. These results hold even when researchers factor out such things as age, health, and income, equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty might have "more to be grateful for."
- Grateful people tend to be less materialistic than the population as a whole and to suffer less anxiety about status or the accumulation of possessions. Partly because of this, they are more likely to describe themselves as happy or satisfied in life.
- In an experiment with college students, those who kept a "gratitude journal," a weekly record of things they should feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly, and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began. (Researchers use frequency of exercise as a barometer for general well-being because it is an objective measure that links to subjective qualities; people who exercise three or more times per week tend to have better indicators of well-being, even when health conditions that affect the ability to exercise are factored out.)
- Grateful people are more spiritually aware and more likely to appreciate the interconnectedness of all life, regardless of whether they belong to specific religions.
These findings are part of an emerging trend in the field of psychology away from psychological studies on pathology and mental illness and toward trying to understand what makes for mental well-being.
Emmons notes that grateful people are not ones who take a Pollyannaish view of the world. In studies, people who score highly on various indicators of gratefulness also report strong awareness of the bad in their own lives and in society. In fact, some research finds that grateful people may be slightly more likely to be cynical than the population as a whole. But they achieve the ability to be wary of life's problems and yet thankful for the ways in which the actions of others lighten their burdens.
|Adam Smith, in his "Theory of Moral Sentiments," supposed that people who did not feel gratitude were only cheating themselves out of happiness in life.|
Grateful people are not necessarily ones whom the world has showered with gifts; people of modest financial means or who have suffered personal tragedies nevertheless may report themselves as grateful, while the well-to-do and good-looking may exhibit little gratitude.
"To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great," Emmons says. "It just means we are aware of our blessings. If you only think about your disappointments and unsatisfied wants, you may be prone to unhappiness. If you're fully aware of your disappointments but at the same time thankful for the good that has happened and for your chance to live, you may show higher indices of well-being."
Psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University, whose specialty is well-being research, says he recently became interested in gratitude when he saw studies suggesting that increasing a person's sense of thankfulness could lead to lower stress and better life "outcomes," meaning success in career and relationships. "Psychologists have tended to look down their nose at gratitude as little more than a question of having good manners and remembering to say thank you," McAdams says. Gratitude isn't even listed in the 1999 addition of the presumably encyclopedic "Encyclopedia of Human Emotions," a standard psychology text. "But if a sense of thankfulness can turn someone's life from bitter to positive, that makes gratitude an important aspect of psychology," McAdams notes.
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.