Choosing Gratitude Makes You Happier and Healthier
While it might seem obvious in retrospect, one of the latest discoveries in the psychology of happiness has to do with gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between gratitude and happiness. One study, performed by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami asked participants to jot down a few sentences each week.
One group was asked to write down things for which they were grateful. The second group was asked to do just the opposite. They wrote down the regular annoyances and frustrations that occur in daily life. The third group were asked to simply write things down that occurred throughout their week, with no specific focus on either positive or negative experiences.
After 10 weeks, those who wrote who wrote about things for which they were grateful were markedly more optimistic and exhibited higher levels of enjoyment of their lives than before the study. An unexpected byproduct of the study found that those participants who practiced writing down things for which they were grateful also exercised more and visiting the doctor less
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Cosmic ingratitude is living in the illusion that you are spiritually self-sufficient. It is taking credit for something that was a gift. It is the belief that you know best how to live, that you have the power and ability to keep your life on the right path and protect yourself from danger. That is a delusion, and a dangerous one.
We did not create ourselves, and we can’t keep our lives going one second without his upholding power. Yet we hate that knowledge, Paul says, and we repress it. We hate the idea that we are utterly and completely dependent on God, because then we would be obligated to him and would not be able to live as we wish. We would have to defer to the one who gives us everything.
Have you ever heard the story of the mother who wanted to teach her daughter a moral lesson? She gave the little girl a quarter and a dollar for church “Put whichever one you want in the collection plate and keep the other for yourself,” she told the girl.
When they were coming out of church, the mother asked her daughter which amount she had given. “Well,” said the little girl, “I was going to give the dollar, but just before the collection the man in the pulpit said that we should all be cheerful givers. I knew I’d be a lot more cheerful if I gave the quarter, so I did.”
The Gift That Inspired a Lifetime of Giving
Tracy Autler’s life changed in a very unexpected way on Thanksgiving Day, 1993. Tracy was a single mother, living in an apartment in a rough neighborhood, she was doing her best to raise a three-year old while preparing for the birth of her second child, at that point, 8 months pregnant. Living off of welfare and food stamps, her Thanksgiving dinner would not be the sumptuous feast many Americans at that time were preparing. Hers was primarily comprised of canned food. Or at least, that is how she expected to “enjoy” her Thanksgiving dinner.
Staring at the canned food on her shelf, Tracy heard a knock at the door. “Who could that be?” she wondered. She wasn’t expecting any company. No friends, no family would be joining her and her three-year old. At the door was a man from a local restaurant, holding what would be a full Thanksgiving meal, given to her by an anonymous donor. Tracy was so surprised; she spent the rest of the day crying. But more than anything she wanted to know who had given such a thoughtful gift.
Years went by and Tracy still hadn’t figured out who had provided this mysterious Thanksgiving meal. After a period of time, Tracy was able to move out of the apartment, and at the same time began working as a nurse at a nearby hospital.
Seven years later, working at the hospital, Tracy Autler was to discover who had provided that amazing Thanksgiving meal. That day, an elderly woman named Margo appeared at the hospital. It was clear Margo did not have long to live. Margo had lived in the same apartment building as Tracy all those years back, and three days before the end of her life, she took Tracy’s hands, and whispered, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
As author Brad Forsma describes:
In that moment Tracy knew who had given her that Thanksgiving dinner. She would never have guessed that Margot—the unassuming neighbor with multiple sclerosis—was behind that generous gift.
…That one gift had a massive impact on Tracy’s life. Moved by the anonymous donor’s generosity, Tracy purposed in her heart to do generous things for other people too. The very day she got off assistance, she took a basket of gifts down to the welfare office for anyone to take. The welfare officer was stunned. Can you imagine the look on his face? Who does something like that? And that was just the beginning.
Since then, Tracy and her husband have become foster parents and adopted a son. She regularly looks for opportunities to give. The last time I heard from her, she was getting ready to volunteer her Saturday afternoon at the local Humane Society. One of her latest ideas is to leave five-dollar Starbucks gift cards with little notes for her coworkers to find, just to make their day better.
This year Tracy and her family made a New Year’s resolution to find one hundred opportunities to give to other people. How inspiring is that? What I appreciate most about Tracy is that she doesn’t do her giving to be noticed by others. Since that Thanksgiving Day in 1993, she has discovered the joy that comes from giving. Now she’s hooked. She doesn’t give to make herself look good—she gives because she likes giving.
A Grateful Heart
The seat of gratitude is the heart. Yet the workings of our hearts remain, in many ways, mysterious. On December 28, 2016, celebrated Hollywood actor Debbie Reynolds died at age eighty-four. The previous day, her sixty-year-old daughter, Carrie Fisher, star of the Star Wars films and noted author, had unexpectedly passed away from complications following a heart attack. A headline in the New York Times asked: “Did Debbie Reynolds Die of a Broken Heart?”
And that is a real thing: stress-induced cardiomyopathy, known as “broken heart syndrome,” when people who are particularly close die within a short time of one another. Indeed, that happened to my great-great-grandparents. Married for almost sixty years at a time when few people lived so long, they passed away within an hour of each other. Broken heart syndrome. Of course, we may never know about Debbie Reynolds.
Nor does the death certificate for my great-great-grandparents say “broken heart.” But the heart is a complex organ, necessary to all of life and susceptible to injury of both body and soul. We human beings did not always understand its biological functions, but somehow we came to celebrate the heart as the seat of emotions, conflating biological existence with the feelings that make our lives both miserable and glorious. During the last two decades, researchers have discovered real links between the heart and gratitude
…Indeed, multiple studies demonstrate connections between well-being (life satisfaction and happiness), physical health, and gratitude. In heart patients who are asymptomatic, researchers found that people who were grateful slept better, were less depressed and tired, and were more self-aware and confident, with lower risks of inflammation. According to one study, gratitude is a dimension of “spirituality and/or religious wellness”; it suggests that gratitude interventions might lower the risk of heart disease. “It seems that a more grateful heart,” says researcher Paul Mills, “is indeed a more healthy heart.”
Gratitude Requires Memory
In his book Gratitude Works, psychologist and Gratitude expert Robert Emmons begins by drawing an important connection between the practice of gratitude and memory. He also goes on to share how religions tend to help this process through “litanies of remembrance.” The sacraments in particular for the Christian tradition stand out, as Jesus states at the end of the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Gratitude is about remembering. If there is a crisis of gratitude in contemporary life, as some have claimed, it is because we are collectively forgetful. We have lost a strong sense of gratitude about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude toward those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, and a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have. Furthermore, we don’t even realize that we have become forgetful because we can’t ever remember being different.
The machinery in our minds that causes us to forget our benefits operates so seamlessly that we cannot detect its workings. However, grateful people draw on positive memories of being the recipients of benevolence, a giftedness that is neither earned nor deserved. This is why religious traditions are able to so effectively cultivate gratitude—litanies of remembrance encourage gratitude and religions do litanies very well. The scriptures, sayings, and sacraments-of-faith traditions inculcate gratefulness by drawing believers into a remembered relationship ness by drawing believers into a remembered relationship with a Supreme Being and with members of their faith community.
A French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart. The memory of the heart includes the memory of those we are dependent on just as the forgetfulness of dependence is unwillingness or inability to remember the benefits provided by others. Do you want to be a grateful person? Then remember to remember.
Gratitude: A Short Background and Etymology
In this short introduction to the subject, psychologist Robert A. Emmons surveys the subject of gratitude in historical and modern research:
What exactly is gratitude? The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defined gratitude as “the quality or condition of being thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness”(p.1135). The word gratitude is derived from the Latin gratia, meaning favor, and gratus, meaning pleasing.
All derivatives from this Latin root “have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing” (Pruyser, 1976, p.69). We are all familiar with the feeling of gratitude—we receive a gift, and we are thankful to the person who has provided this kindness to us.
We recognize that the other need not have made this gesture but did so out of goodwill toward us.
Psychologists and philosophers are rarely content with dictionary definitions. Gratitude has been defined in a number of ways throughout history. Kant (1797/1964) defined gratitude as “honoring a person because of a kindness he has done us” (p.123). Scottish philosopher Thomas Brown (1820) defined gratitude as “that delightful emotion of love to him who has conferred a kindness on us, the very feeling of which is itself no small part of the benefit conferred”(p.291).
In psychological parlance, gratitude is the positive recognition of benefits received. Gratitude has been defined as “an estimate of gain coupled with the judgment that someone else is responsible for that gain”(Solomon, 1977, p.316). Gratitude has been said to represent “an attitude toward the giver, and an attitude toward the gift, a determination to use it well, to employ it imaginatively and inventively in accordance with the giver’s intention” (Harned, 1997, p.175). Gratitude is an emotion, the core of which is pleasant feelings about the benefit received.
At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit. The grateful person recognizes that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed. This core feature is reflected in one definition of gratitude as “the willingness to recognize the unearned increments of value in one’s experience” (Bertocci & Millard, 1963, p.389). The benefit, gift, or personal gain might be material or nonmaterial (e.g.,emotional or spiritual). Gratitude is other-directed—its objects include persons, as well as nonhuman intentional agents (God, animals, the cosmos; Solomon, 1977). It is important that gratitude has a positive valence: It feels good.
The Hard Spiritual Work of Gratitude
To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work.
Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.
Henri Nouwen, “The Spiritual Work of Gratitude,” Henri Nouwen Society, January 12, 2017.
Singing in the Rain (and in the Sunshine)
I had a severe cervical spinal injury. The pain was so excruciating that the hospital staff couldn’t do an MRI until I was significantly sedated. The MRI showed significant damage at three major points in the cervical area. Because of the swelling of injured nerve bundles, the only way I could relieve the pain was to use a strong, prescribed narcotic and to lie on bags of ice. Sleep, what little there was, came only by sitting in a reclining chair.
Approximately forty-eight hours from the onset of the injury, doctors estimated that I had lost about 80 percent of the strength in my left arm. Three fingers on my left hand totally lost feeling. The slightest movements would send pain waves hurtling down my left side and shoulder. I had to step away completely from my work (which I love) and wear a neck brace twenty-four hours a day for five weeks.
About halfway through that experience, I was sitting on the screened-in porch behind our home. The day was cold and blustery, but I needed a change of scenery. Suddenly a bird landed on the railing and began to sing. On that cold, rainy day, I couldn’t believe any creature had a reason to sing. I wanted to shoot that bird! But he continued to warble, and I had no choice but to listen.
The next day I was on the porch again, but this time it was bright, sunny, and warm. I was tempted to feel sorry for myself when suddenly the bird (at least it looked like the same one) returned. And he was singing again! Where was that shotgun?
Then it hit me: the bird sang in the cold rain as well as the sunny warmth. His song was not altered by outward circumstances, but it was held constant by an internal condition. It was as though God quietly said to me, “You’ve got the same choice, Bob. You will either let external circumstances mold your attitude, or your attitude will rise above the external circumstances. You choose!”
“Thank You for This Food Which I am About to Receive”
An atheist was walking through the woods, admiring all the “accidents” that evolution had created. “What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!” he said.
Suddenly he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. Turning to look, he saw a seven-foot grizzly bear charging toward him. He ran as fast as he could up the path.
He looked over his shoulder and saw the grizzly was closing in on him. He was so scared that tears came to his eyes. His heart was pounding. He tried to run faster but then tripped and fell to the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up, but the bear was over him, raising its right paw to strike him.
“O my God!” cried the atheist.
Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. Even the river stopped moving.
As a bright light shone on the man, a voice came out of the sky, “You deny my existence for all these years, teach others that I don’t exist, and even credit creation to a cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?”
The atheist looked directly into the light and said, “I would feel like a hypocrite to become a Christian after all these years, but perhaps you could make the bear a Christian?”
“Very well,” said the voice.
The light went out. The river ran. The sounds of the forest resumed. Then the bear dropped its right paw, brought both paws together, bowed its head, and spoke: “Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful.”
Overwhelmed by Vision
On the effect of seeing for the first time after Cataract Surgery:
The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair….
A twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”
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