The Importance of Gratitude

Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.

The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.

The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.

Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects:

1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present. It magnifies positive emotions.

Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like newness. They like novelty. They like change. We adapt to positive life circumstances so that before too long, the new car, the new spouse, the new house—they don’t feel so new and exciting anymore.

But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted.

In effect, I think gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness. We spend so much time watching things—movies, computer screens, sports—but with gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to spectators.

2. Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. There’s even recent evidence, including a 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality, showing that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.

This makes sense: You cannot feel envious and grateful at the same time. They’re incompatible feelings. If you’re grateful, you can’t resent someone for having something that you don’t. Those are very different ways of relating to the world, and sure enough, research I’ve done with colleagues Michael McCullough and Jo-Ann Tsang has suggested that people who have high levels of gratitude have low levels of resentment and envy.

3. Grateful people are more stress resistant. There’s a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly. I believe gratitude gives people a perspective from which they can interpret negative life events and help them guard against post-traumatic stress and lasting anxiety.

4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.

Doubtless, most people, regardless of their circumstances, have a difficult time cultivating gratitude. Humans are ingrained with a variety of psychological tendencies that erode our capacity to recognize the good things in our lives, much less feel consciously appreciative of them.

Fortunately, it does not take much to change our attitude and learn to enjoy every moment and every positive element in our lives. Here are just a few recommendations to consider:

First is to keep a gratitude journal, as I’ve had people do in my experiments. This can mean listing just five things for which you’re grateful every week. This practice works, I think, because it consciously, intentionally focuses our attention on developing more grateful thinking and on eliminating ungrateful thoughts. It helps guard against taking things for granted; instead, we see gifts in life as new and exciting. I do believe that people who live a life of pervasive thankfulness really do experience life differently than people who cheat themselves out of life by not feeling grateful.

Similarly, another gratitude exercise is to practice counting your blessings on a regular basis, maybe first thing in the morning, maybe in the evening. What are you grateful for today? You don’t have to write them down on paper.

You can also use concrete reminders to practice gratitude, which can be particularly effective in working with children, who aren’t abstract thinkers like adults are. For instance, I read about a woman in Vancouver whose family developed this practice of putting money in “gratitude jars”. At the end of the day, they emptied their pockets and put spare change in those jars. They had a regular reminder, a routine, to get them to focus on gratitude. Then, when the jar became full, they gave the money in it to a needy person or a good cause within their community.

Practices like this can not only teach children the importance of gratitude but can show that gratitude impels people to “pay it forward”—to give to others in some measure like they themselves have received.

Finally, I think it’s important to think outside of the box when it comes to gratitude. Mother Teresa talked about how grateful she was to the people she was helping, the sick and dying in the slums of Calcutta, because they enabled her to grow and deepen her spirituality. That’s a very different way of thinking about gratitude—gratitude for what we can give as opposed to what we receive. But that can be a very powerful way, I think, of cultivating a sense of gratitude.

Of course, there are many ways one can express and embrace gratitude; what matters most is doing so in the first place, and making it a regular part of your day to day life. There is nothing to lose in such an effort, and plenty to gain — greater mental and social health, less stress, increased optimism and compassion, higher levels of energy, and much more.

To that end, I have been striving to be more mindful of the many things I am grateful for — indeed, the very fact that I have a lot to appreciate in life is worthy of gratefulness in itself. I enjoy the comfort and privilege of being able to blog to you from the comfort of my warm bed, with my mental and physical faculties in relatively good shape, surrounded by a network of loving and supportive people. From indoor plumbing and a full fridge, to a stable social, economic, and political environment, I literally enjoy more riches and privileged than the overwhelming majority of humans that have ever lived — and it is all due to the randomness of my birth and the efforts of unseen millions who up to this point contributed to these positive circumstances, which I currently reap unconditionally.

Even with all that said, I am only scratching at the surface of what I am grateful for. But with a holiday feast among family and friends awaiting me, I must depart and share in my gratitude with others. I hope many of you are able to do the same. Thank you for taking the time to read another of my ramblings and missives, and for giving me a reason to keep doing what I love.

I invite you to share what you are grateful for, or to try these suggestions for yourself. Otherwise, enjoy a healthy, happy, and life affirming holiday, and please be well.

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