We're supposed to feel gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, and not merely for being stuffed with delicious fowl, wine, and pies. On this day, we should feel broadly grateful to be alive and to have a place in a world that is strange and beautiful.
On other days, we're supposed to feel thankful if someone does us a favor, or fortune smiles. For those who are religious, gratefulness before God is indispensable. And kids, when you get presents, you simply must send thank-you notes! But that's about it for gratitude, which has never finished high on the list of sentiments men and women are taught to cultivate, nor attracted many researchers studying elements central to psychological health.
What if that view is wrong? Suppose thankfulness were not only among our most important positive emotions, but one that links directly to physical and mental well-being. Suppose it is in our self-interest to feel gratitude because it makes us better people. Surprisingly, that is what research is beginning to indicate.
Consider that recent academic studies have shown:
- People who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others and either to God or to creation in general tend to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole. These results hold even when researchers factor out such things as age, health, and income, equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty might have "more to be grateful for."
- Grateful people tend to be less materialistic than the population as a whole and to suffer less anxiety about status or the accumulation of possessions. Partly because of this, they are more likely to describe themselves as happy or satisfied in life.
- In an experiment with college students, those who kept a "gratitude journal," a weekly record of things they should feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly, and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began. (Researchers use frequency of exercise as a barometer for general well-being because it is an objective measure that links to subjective qualities; people who exercise three or more times per week tend to have better indicators of well-being, even when health conditions that affect the ability to exercise are factored out.)
- Grateful people are more spiritually aware and more likely to appreciate the interconnectedness of all life, regardless of whether they belong to specific religions.
These findings are part of an emerging trend in the field of psychology away from psychological studies on pathology and mental illness and toward trying to understand what makes for mental well-being.