Defining Ideas

Giving Thanks In Hard Times

Tuesday, November 24, 2015
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Barbara Kelley

How many Americans will spend some part of this Thanksgiving actually giving thanks? The psychological scientist in me would love to know the answer to that question, but the news consumer in me predicts that it may not be a resoundingly high proportion of the population. Negative forces are casting a shadow over the good things in life for which we would normally be thankful. For one thing, the news this season has been filled with one dreadful report after another, climaxing in the sad story of the terrorist attacks in Paris. For another, on our own soil, and for other reasons, people are far from content. Journalists have used terms such as “angry,” “resentful,” fearful,” “sour,” “hostile,” and “divided” to describe the American populace. Both at home and abroad, people are feeling down.

If there is some desirable balance in life between appreciation and criticism—between a comfortable perception that that the glass is half-full versus a resentful grumble that the glass is half-empty—we are living through a time when the scales are tipping in the direction of negativism. Given this, my sense is that football and the turkey will far eclipse any wholehearted expressions of gratitude on this particular Thanksgiving.

Which is unfortunate, not only for our public climate but also for the well-being of those in the populace who can find no time in their day—even on this specially dedicated day—to give thanks for all they’ve been given. A summary of scientific findings by the Templeton Foundation casts a revealing light on the personal benefits of what Sir John Templeton called “an attitude of gratitude.”

Here are a few of the ways that gratitude contributes to a life of happiness and fulfillment, according to various studies: “Grateful people will have 10% fewer stress related illnesses, will be more physically fit (and) have blood pressure that is lower by 12%,” and “Grateful people will have stronger bonds with the local community… more satisfying relationships with others, and will be better liked.”  Young and older people alike reap social, intellectual, and health benefits. Grateful youth get into 13% fewer fights and are 20% more likely to get A’s in their schoolwork; grateful teens are ten times less likely to start smoking; and, as we age, many of us gradually realize the importance of giving thanks: for every ten years across the lifespan, gratitude tends to increase by 5%.

But these documented benefits alone will not wash the bitterness out of our societal fabric. To lift up an entire society, concerted efforts must be made to cultivate gratitude as a habitual way of experiencing life. Many religious practices aim at precisely this goal: the renowned theologian Martin Marty believed that the most common theme of prayer among the world’s religions is the expression of thanks. And in the secular world, fostering gratitude as a route to sustained psychological well-being is a prime target of scientific innovation at the present moment.

Leaders in the burgeoning science of “positive psychology” have developed techniques for helping people acquire an “attitude of gratitude” even during trying times. Robert Emmons, a pioneer of gratitude research, has tested a “gratitude diary” method: subjects were told to keep a journal listing five things for which they felt grateful each week (such as a friend’s generosity, a trip to a lovely beach, a beautiful song on the radio, and so on). People who kept such a journal were more likely than others to feel happy and hopeful and less likely to have physical problems and weariness. Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology approach, found similar results with a method he calls “the gratitude visit.” In this exercise, a person composes a letter to someone who did something—whether recognized or not—to improve that person’s life. When the person delivers the letter to the benefactor, the person explains why he or she feels grateful. Seligman considers such an act to be an effective promoter of mental well-being and deterrent against depression.

There is a mental exercise that I would also like to suggest for those of us fortunate enough to be celebrating this American holiday of Thanksgiving as American citizens. As noted, the mood of our country is contentious. One of the major sources of contention is our immigration policy, a hotbed of negative feelings on all sides. Wherever the final resolution of that debate may take us, it always begins with one undeniable reality: people from all over the world are eager to come to the United States and become American citizens. All sides of the debate acknowledge this reality.

But how often does anyone pause, in the midst of the political sparring and acrimony, to express gratitude for the blessings, recognized worldwide, bestowed by our American heritage of liberty? This is what people everywhere crave; and if their understandable craving poses for us a problem that we must responsibly resolve, we owe it to those whose sacrifices gave us such liberty—and also to ourselves—to give thanks for the blessings we share as Americans. In this way, a patriotic sentiment can serve both the personal good of psychological well-being and the societal good of finding common ground among competing perspectives. My suggested mental exercise is thus to pause for one moment to reflect on what we cherish about the American tradition.

The good news for our society is that, in the words of that old 1960s song, the kids—or at least most of them—are “alright” in this regard. In a study of “civic purpose” among a diverse sample of young Americans, we found numerous expressions of appreciation for the American legacy of liberty and democracy. In a current study of gratitude in young people, we are looking at the role of gratitude in their lives, what they are grateful for, how they understand the value of gratitude, and what ways they have learned to express their thanks.

One might think that, in our supposedly materialistic society, young Americans’ gratitude would center on material gain, as in, “I was grateful for the new video games my mother bought me.” Yet we have found this kind of hedonistic focus to be relatively rare in our young subjects. Instead, in this study’s ethnically and economically diverse sample, the young people were far more likely to be grateful for close relationships and for having the day-to-day necessities of life. Even the young people from very low-income families expressed a keen awareness of those who are less advantaged than they are. They reported experiencing a daily sense of gratitude for a home, a bed, and food. Some of the youngsters, including those from the less-advantaged groups, went even further and expressed a sincere gratitude for life itself.

This is not to say that all of today’s young are paragons of gratitude: many still have a lot to learn about the whys, whens, and hows of giving thanks. As with any life capacity, there is a significant amount of variation in the understanding of gratitude among young people. We found that some of them invest a lot of time and attention in their expressions of gratitude, tailoring such expressions according to the particularities of the situation and the nature of the “gift” that one is giving thanks for. But other young people, even among those who are academically high performers, express a far less mature, almost mechanical understanding of gratitude as an act of mandatory payback and superficial manners. Such young people, and many of us older folks as well, still have much to learn about how genuine gratitude can deepen relationships, contribute to the wellbeing of others, and enhance one’s own joy and positive fulfillment in life. 

Hard times test all of our capacities to remind ourselves what we have to be thankful for. Young people are not the only ones who can learn more about the value of gratitude: we are all challenged in new ways all the time to find the positive in what life may bring us. Fortunately the American tradition includes a holiday intended to help us remember why we give thanks. Thanksgiving is one more wonderful part of our extraordinary American tradition. May we make the best of it.