The Thanksgivings Opportunity: What the Latest Science on Gratitude Tells Us about Happiness

Gratitude Survival

Imagine possessing all the food, shelter, and wealth you desire. Even more! You have a loving spouse, great kids, and loyal friends. Even more! You have fulfilled all your dreams and aspirations, finding meaning and purpose in life. And even more! All people in the world have also achieved their wishes. Then, is there anything that could still be missing in that world?

The ancient rabbis ask that question as they wonder if animal sacrifices and prayers would still be necessary in Messianic times. After all, expiatory sacrifices or supplications seemed pointless in a world without envy, guilt, transgressions, or needs. They concluded that in such an ideal world, all sacrifices and prayers would end except for one; gratitude.

Americans have also embraced the power of gratitude. Thanksgiving has become sacred in the secular menu of our culture. On Thursday night, millions will sit around the table, giving thanks for the gift of each other’s love. Research shows that gratitude promotes happiness by enhancing one’s social relationships. (1)

Are Grateful People Happy People?

How do we draw any benefit from being grateful?

The great news is that research shows that gratitude increases happiness. Grateful people tend to be happier. (2)

Other studies reveal that grateful individuals are more agreeable, emotionally stable, and self-confident. (3).

Happiness returns the favor to gratitude by making people more grateful. That mutual reinforcement between gratitude and happiness generates an upward spiral resulting in what Watkins calls a “cycle of virtue.” (4).

Are Grateful People Stronger?

But gratitude not only increases happiness. Multiple studies reveal that gratitude helps us cope with low points in life. It strengthens our resilience by allowing us to draw positivity from challenging experiences. Our gratitude dispels painful memories as we focus on the good in life. Grateful individuals report fewer posttraumatic symptoms. Depression and negative thoughts tend to fade faster for grateful people. (5). It seems that Nachum Ish Gamzu, who, as the Talmud tells us, faced challenges with “Gam zu l’tovah (“this is also for good),” was grounded in solid research!

 In addition, gratitude decreases negative emotions by opening the gates of positive memories. Happy and grateful people more easily recall pleasant events from the past. As we experience gratitude, the inner script we write about our life shifts into a more joyous and fulfilling narrative. In a state of gratitude, we interpret our life, as tough as it may be, in a better light.

Gratitude moves us forward with optimism. Beyond acknowledging the good in the past, it motivates us to journey into the future.  

How to be Grateful?

One of the most powerful gratitude enhancers is the “gratitude letter.” Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson. (6) asked individuals to write a gratitude letter to someone they have “not properly thanked.” Then, they visited and read the letter to their benefactor. The research revealed substantial increases in happiness and a pronounced reduction in depression. So, who is on your “thank you letter list.” Isn’t thanksgiving a wonderful opportunity to write that letter? Remember, a letter, not a Hallmark card. If you feel shy to read it in person or the person lives far away, send it.

Another technique to increase gratefulness and happiness is counting our blessings. Emmons and MacCullog verified that counting one’s blessings enhanced our well-being. (7). This is also ancient wisdom. The Talmud teaches that we must recite 100 blessings a day. Difficult? It depends. If we bless our waking up, food, seeing beautiful things in nature, or praying, the blessing begins mounting. The secret is to find blessings in the mundane, making the mundane a blessing. Once again, the rabbi knew their research.  

Another proven method for increasing happiness is writing a gratitude journal. A study published by psychologist Deborah Danner in 2001 examined the autobiographies of 180 catholic nuns. The results were staggering. The more positive emotions expressed in their life stories, the greater their longevity. There was nearly a seven-year difference between the happiest and less happy nuns. Sit and write five things you are grateful for in the evening. They can be simple such as the delicious soup you had for lunch or the book you enjoyed. It is a matter of life or death!

Do I Need to be Religious?

Studies reveal a direct correlation between gratitude and religiosity. Grateful people report attending more religious services, praying more, reading the Scriptures more frequently, and having a closer relationship with God than less grateful individuals. (8). The reverse is also validated. Spirituality augments gratitude.

It may be good for religious communities to articulate and teach the virtue of gratitude as central to their mission. Humility, gratitude and their happiness benefits may be wonderful calling cards for religious declining institutions.  

But How Long does Happiness Last?

Measurements of the “letter of gratitude” shows that its happiness effect last for approximately a month, fading after six. Gratitude is not a quick fix. To last, it must become a habit.

Ideally, we should not practice gratitude for its benefits. The reward of gratitude, like other virtues, should lay in its inner value. The goal is to feel satisfaction by doing what is good. Still, if you insist on cultivating gratitude for its reward, research teaches that you may fail in your endeavors. The pursuit of gratitude for self-interest, the science of happiness shows, is ineffective. (9).

The rabbis were right. Even in Messianic times, we will need gratitude. That mutual gratitude may in itself be the Messianic times.

  1. Sociability appears to be one of the most reliable predictors of happiness. Diener, E., Suh, E.M, Lucas, R.E and Smith, H.L., (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302. For a summary of gratitude and positive social impact, see Watkins, P C., Van Gelder, M., and Frias, A., Furthering the Science of Gratitude, in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Editors, Shane Lopez, and C.R. Snyder, (second edition), 442.
  2. McCullough, M.E.; Emmons, R.A and Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.
  3.  McComb, D, Watkins, P., and Kolts, R. (2004, May). Personality predictions of Happiness: The importance of gratitude. Presentation to the 84th Annual Convention of the Western Psychological Association, Phoenix, AZ.
  4. Watkins, P.C. (2004). Gratitude and subjective well-being. In R.A. Emmons and M.E. McCullough (Eds.), The Psychology of Gratitude (pp. 167-192). New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  5. Seidlitz, L., and Diener, E., (1993). Memory for positive versus negative life events: Theories for the differences between happy and unhappy persons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 654-664.
  6. Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A, Park, N., and Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
  7. Emmons, R.A, and McCullough, M.E, (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An empirical investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 19, 56-69.
  8. Watkins, P.C, Cruz. L, Holben, H., and Kolts, R. (2005). Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 87-99.
  9. Carey, J.R., Clique, S.H., Leighton, B.A., and Milton, F., (1976). A test of Positive reinforcement of customers. Journal of Marketing, 40, 98-100.

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