The Joy of Thanks
People who knew the extraordinarily prolific and influential writer G. K. Chesterton consistently described him as "exuberant" and "exhilarated" by life. What was his secret? He delighted in the ordinary and was surprised and awed by existence -- his own and all else's. In a letter to his fiancee he wrote, "I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud."
In short, Chesterton knew and practiced what many of us sense intuitively but fail to act on -- the power of gratitude. Fifty years ago, Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, also recognized the power of gratitude to recharge the soul: He counted the capacity to "appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others" as a central gift of what he called "self-actualizing individuals."
And yet nowadays we tend to dismiss gratitude as merely a polite social convention or an occasional warm feeling. Modern psychologists have to take much of the blame, I'm afraid. We've spent too many years focusing on negative emotions -- such as depression, anxiety, and hostility. Now that we're finally paying serious attention to positive states -- and are gathering solid data on their profound effect on mental, physical, and spiritual well-being -- it's time to get out the word that it's good to feel good.
My colleagues and I are finding that gratitude, which we define as a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life, is more than simply a pleasant emotion to experience or a polite sentiment to express. It is, or at least can be, a basic disposition, one that seems to make lives happier, healthier, more fulfilling -- and even longer.
Recent psychological research shows that:
a person experiencing gratitude is protected from the destructive impulses of envy and greed;
the practice of gratitude as a spiritual discipline may cure excessive materialism and its attendant negative emotions of envy, resentment, disappointment, and bitterness;
gratitude supports well-being by displacing resentment, regret, and other psychological states deleterious to long-term happiness; and
grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions -- happiness, vitality, optimism, and hope -- and greater satisfaction with life.
Grateful Heart, Healthy Heart?
Gratitude seems to affect physical health, as well. Rollin McCraty and his colleagues at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, have found that consciously experiencing appreciation increases parasympathetic activity, a change thought to be beneficial in controlling stress and hypertension (click on "Read more" at the end of this article). Research at the University of Pittsburgh found that heart-transplant recipients who practiced thankfulness and appreciation as aspects of their religious faith felt better and had fewer difficulties with diet and medications one year after the operation. In the famous "nun study," University of Kentucky researchers analyzed the emotional content in autobiographies from 180 Roman Catholic nuns at age 22. Six decades later, the ones most likely to still be alive were the ones who expressed the most positive emotions (gratitude, contentment, hope, etc.). In fact, they found nearly a seven-year difference in longevity between the happiest and the least happy nuns.
Not surprisingly, the great spiritual traditions all teach the value of gratitude, and gratitude in turn helps one become more spiritual. Just as a grateful person recognizes the positive contributions of other people to one's well-being, people with grateful dispositions may also be oriented toward recognition of non-human forces that might contribute to their well-being in a broader, more existential sense (luck, chance, God, or some other conception of the divine).
New data continues to pour in, but already it appears that 21st-century research will confirm what the wonderful G. K. Chesterton wrote back in 1908: "The test of all happiness is gratitude. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he puts in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?"
One is never lacking in opportunities to be happy, according to Chesterton, because around every corner is another gift waiting to surprise us.
Then try this:
Practicing the Art of Counting Your Blessings: Your Daily Gratitude Journal
In one study at the University of California, Davis, where I teach, we examined the effect of counting your blessings regularly. We recruited three groups. One kept gratitude journals. One recorded daily hassles. The third wrote down neutral events. We found that the gratitude group exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than the other groups. They were also more likely to report helping someone with a personal problem or offering emotional support to another. A second study found that the gratitude group enjoyed higher levels of alertness and energy than the others.
Want to try it? Here are the instructions we gave the gratitude groups:
"There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for." (We actually found that those who wrote in their gratitude journals daily got more benefits than those who did so weekly.)
Participants were grateful for: "waking up this morning," "the generosity of friends," "to God for giving me determination," "for wonderful parents," "to the Lord for just another day," and "to the Rolling Stones." God bless rock and roll!