Our neighbours to the South just finished up their official rentree into the holiday season – also known as Thanksgiving – and it has a lot of people thinking about what being thankful means. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal – Thank You. No, Thank You: Grateful People Are Happier, Healthier Long After the Leftovers Are Gobbled Up by Melinda Beck – pointed to significant research to show that an attitude of gratitude can improve psychological, emotional and physical well-being. People who feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not; they even earn more money, sleep better, get more exercise and are less likely to get sick.
Of course, as the article points out, the cause-and-effect relationship between gratitude and happiness isn’t necessarily straightforward. It’s possible that people who are more grateful simply have more things to be grateful for. If your spouse recently died and you’ve lost your job and your home has been repossessed, it’s completely understandable why you would be both unhappy and ungrateful. But, some research has shown that taking time to count blessings can actually make you feel better. The story suggests keeping a gratitude journal, undertaking a daily Buddhist exercise where you ask what you have given and received, and actually thanking someone in person for something that makes you feel grateful; and all of these things were linked to greater happiness.
“As simple as it sounds, gratitude is actually a demanding, complex emotion,” writes Beck. “Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the ‘negativity bias’—the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices rather than upbeat events. Focusing on blessings can help ward off depression and build resilience in times of stress, grief or disasters…Can people learn to look on the bright side, want what they have and be grateful for it? Experts believe that about 50% of such temperament is genetic, but the rest comes from experience, so there’s ample opportunity for change.”
This story prompted me to think about when I feel most and least grateful – and how it affects my mood. I recently wrote about a meltdown that I had – to paraphrase: I threw a small hissy fit in an Apple store because I was told that I had to wait for an iPhone – and one of the key reasons it made me feel so terrible was not the lack of fancy gadget but the loss of perspective and self-control. Being ungrateful makes me feel low because on a rational level – if not always on an emotional level – I’m aware of how grateful I should be. So when I briefly delve into spoiled or self-pitying behaviour, I feel like a jerk because I know that I’m acting like a jerk and should know better.
On the other hand, when I do stop to take inventory of everything I have to be thankful for – for the big things, like parents who taught me to love thick novels and aimless travel, and the small things, like the perfect dish of mixto ceviche I recently ate – I can always feel my heart growing a few sizes. Sometimes, it happens consciously – like when I’m caught up in the drama of something trivial (delayed iPhone) and can’t seem to shake the funk. And sometimes, it happens unconsciously – like on the nights when I’m humbled into a brief silence, surrounded by so many good friends and so much good food that it almost seems impossible for one person to be so lucky. But either way, taking a moment to pay attention and say a quiet thank you can make all of the difference.