Thankful for the Little Things in Life
When someone mentions the word ‘gratitude,’ images come to mind of that Thank You note you received in the mail last week, the hug your mom gave you last night, sitting around the dinner table with family and friends on Thanksgiving–the intentional moments set aside to show appreciation for blessings in one’s life.
Most individuals understand the emotion of gratitude. For thousands of years, intellectuals have been considering the essential role gratitude plays in daily life. Cicero and Seneca believed that gratitude was a crucial virtue foundational to a successful civilization. The emotion played a significant role in several historical movements. Today, positive psychology is taking a deep dive into research surrounding the impact of thankfulness on individuals and communities. Before we can discuss any of that, though, we must define what we truly mean by ‘gratitude.’
Definition of Gratitude
As it often happens in academia, gratitude has a different meaning within positive psychology than in everyday life use. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is not just an act, but an emotion that serves a particular purpose for humanity. It is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces long-lasting positivity. Such a definition allows positive psychologists to measure the effects of thankfulness.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”Epicurus
Two Parts to Gratitude
Robert Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has two key components, which he describes in his essay, “Why Gratitude Is Good.”
“It’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received… [Secondly,] we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves… 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 and his peers consider the social dimension as being essential to gratitude. Thankfulness strengthens relationships by requiring us to acknowledge how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other individuals. Furthermore, gratitude encourages us not only to appreciate gifts but also to repay them, or “pay it forward.” Sociologist Georg Simmel called it “the moral memory of mankind.” It generates empathy and sympathy, allowing us to step outside of ourselves and view the world differently.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need. Tossing off half-hearted “thanks” won’t cut it; deep gratitude requires conscientious forethought and intentionality.
Practicing gratitude means paying attention to what we are thankful for such that we feel more kind and compassionate toward the world. Studies show that people can cultivate gratitude by literally counting their blessings and writing thank you letters, thereby enacting positive change in their lives.
Gratitude & Grace
From a Christian understanding, gratitude roots itself in an understanding of God’s grace. It is an emotion we feel in response to receiving some undeserved good. Gratitude, as a response to a gift, is also a form of generosity, of graciously crediting the other for something not strictly owed.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.Psalm 100:1-5
Why Practice Gratitude?
Over the past 15 years, hundreds of studies have documented the social, physical, and psychological benefits of gratitude. The research suggests these benefits are available to anyone who practices thankfulness, especially in the midst of adversity and suffering. Here are some of the top research-based reasons for practicing gratitude:
A spirit and attitude of appreciation bring happiness. Happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky and others have conducted studies revealing that practicing gratitude has proven to be one of the most reliable methods for increasing happiness and life satisfaction. It can also boost feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, and enthusiasm.
It follows, therefore, that thankful people experience less anxiety and depression. Gratitude can be a helpful part of therapy. Research suggests it may help reduce depression even among people with a chronic disease.
Singing in the shower daily can help boost your immunity, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve your mood.
Our attitude impacts our health. Studies by Emmons and his colleague Michael McCullough suggest that gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, decreases symptoms of illness, and makes us less bothered by aches and pains. It motivates us to stay active and consciously pursue wellness.
One way gratitude increases our well-being is through sleep. Appreciative individuals. They get more hours of sleep at night, fall asleep quicker, and feel more refreshed in the morning. If you want to sleep more soundly and have more energy throughout the day, count your blessings, not sheep.
Furthermore, gratitude inculcates resiliency. Studies show that it assists people to recover from traumatic events, including Vietnam War veterans with PTSD, victims of natural disasters, and people living under violent, political conflict.
Connected to the idea of health and well-being is the concept of catharsis. Catharsis is the process in which an individual releases strong emotions (i.e., crying after a stressful or traumatic event).
Similarly, catharsis works with gratitude. To illustrate: the guilt associated with failing to meet obligations may cause a person to show gratitude to another whom they have let down, in an attempt to release that guilt. The use of gratitude serves as an agent of catharsis, and both parties feel satisfied in the end.
Being grateful strengthens relationships. It makes us feel closer and more committed to friends and romantic partners. When couples express gratitude for one another, they each become more satisfied with the relationship. It may also encourage a more equitable division of labor between partners. Thankfulness promotes forgiveness, even between ex-spouses succeeding a divorce.
Gratitude can often involve reciprocity, the exchanging of actions. Someone performs an act of gratitude for another person, and in turn, that person may be motivated to do something gracious for the former person or continue the favor for a stranger. There is utility in showing appreciation to make amends and resolve conflict.
Ever heard the phrase, “pay it forward”? Grateful people are more helpful, altruistic, compassionate, prosocial, and empathetic. Although paying it forward does not obligate you as the receiver to reciprocate if you cannot, it does generate positivity.
Children as young as six or seven are more generous when they’re feeling grateful. Gratefuladolescents can be more resilient. When 10-19 year olds practice gratitude, they report greater life satisfaction and feel connected to their community. Studies also suggest that students feel better about their school. Similarly, teachers experience greater satisfaction and accomplishment and less emotional exhaustion and burnout.
Self-control assists one with discipline and focus, as well as persistence in establishing and recognizing long-term goals as consistent with our subjective definition of a well-lived life. Interestingly, when individuals choose thankfulness over immediate gratification or apathy, self-control dramatically increases. A contributor to a 2014 study, Professor Ye Li, said:
“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with simple gratitude exercises opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”
The potential for greater happiness and health may lie in the commonplace emotion of gratitude. Being thankful gives us the resolve necessary for better decision making for ourselves and others. Why? Gratitude is motivating. Gratefulness begins with an acknowledgment that life is good.
You can ‘rewire’ your brain to be happy by simply recalling three things for which you are grateful each day for twenty-one days.
Gratitude is a selfless act. Thankful acts are done unconditionally to demonstrate an appreciation of people. However, that is not to say that people do not return the favor. Gratitude can be contagious, in a good way.
Next week, we’ll be discussing simple ways to incorporate a spirit of thanksgiving into your life, no matter how many different directions in which the world pulls you.