The lifesaving power of gratitude (or, why you should write that thank you note)

The lifesaving power of gratitude (or, why you should write that thank you note)

The lifesaving power of gratitude (or, why you should write that thank you note)

An attitude of gratitude may relieve stress, which in turn may lead to better health. michaelhelm/Shutterstock.com
Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

Gratitude may be more beneficial than we commonly suppose. One recent study asked subjects to write a note of thanks to someone and then estimate how surprised and happy the recipient would feel – an impact that they consistently underestimated. Another study assessed the health benefits of writing thank you notes. The researchers found that writing as few as three weekly thank you notes over the course of three weeks improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings and reduced symptoms of depression.

While this research into gratitude is relatively new, the principles involved are anything but. Students of mine in a political philosophy course at Indiana University are reading Daniel Defoe’s 300-year-old “Robinson Crusoe,” often regarded as the first novel published in English. Marooned alone on an unknown island with no apparent prospect of rescue or escape, Crusoe has much to lament. But instead of giving in to despair, he makes a list of things for which he is grateful, including the fact that he is the shipwreck’s sole survivor and has been able to salvage many useful items from the wreckage.

Defoe’s masterpiece, which is often ranked as one of the world’s greatest novels, provides a portrait of gratitude in action that is as timely and relevant today as it has ever been. It is also one with which contemporary psychology and medicine are just beginning to catch up. Simply put, for most of us, it is far more helpful to focus on the things in life for which we can express gratitude than those that incline us toward resentment and lamentation.

The benefits of gratitude

When we focus on the things we regret, such as failed relationships, family disputes, and setbacks in career and finance, we tend to become more regretful. Conversely, when we focus on the things we are grateful for, a greater sense of happiness tends to pervade our lives. And while no one would argue for cultivating a false sense of blessedness, there is mounting evidence that counting our blessings is one of the best habits we can develop to promote mental and physical health.

A teenager in Malaysia gives thanks. Young Swee Ming/Shutterstock.com

Gratitude has long enjoyed a privileged position in many of the world’s faith traditions. For example, the Biblical Book of Psalms counsels gratitude that is both enduring and complete, saying, “I will give thanks to you forever” and “with my whole heart.” Martin Luther writes of gratitude as the heart of the Gospel, portraying it as not merely an attitude but a virtue to be put into practice. The Quran recommends gratitude, saying “Whoever gives thanks benefits his own soul.”

Recent scientific studies support these ancient teachings. Individuals who regularly engage in gratitude exercises, such as counting their blessings or expressing gratitude to others, exhibit increased satisfaction with relationships and fewer symptoms of physical illness. And the benefits are not only psychological and physical. They may also be moral – those who practice gratitude also view their lives less materialistically and suffer from less envy.

Why gratitude is good for you

There are multiple explanations for such benefits of gratefulness. One is the fact that expressing gratitude encourages others to continue being generous, thus promoting a virtuous cycle of goodness in relationships. Similarly, grateful people may be more likely to reciprocate with acts of kindness of their own. Broadly speaking, a community in which people feel grateful to one another is likely to be a more pleasant place to live than one characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment.

The beneficial effects of gratitude may extend even further. For example, when many people feel good about what someone else has done for them, they experience a sense of being lifted up, with a corresponding enhancement of their regard for humanity. Some are inspired to attempt to become better people themselves, doing more to help bring out the best in others and bringing more goodness into the world around them.

Gratitude also tends to strengthen a sense of connection with others. When people want to do good things that inspire gratitude, the level of dedication in relationships tends to grow and relationships seem to last longer. And when people feel more connected, they are more likely to choose to spend their time with one another and demonstrate their feelings of affection in daily acts.

Of course, acts of kindness can also foster discomfort. For example, if people feel they are not worthy of kindness or suspect that some ulterior motive lies behind it, the benefits of gratitude will not be realized. Likewise, receiving a kindness can give rise to a sense of indebtedness, leaving beneficiaries feeling that they must now pay back whatever good they have received. Gratitude can flourish only if people are secure enough in themselves and sufficiently trusting to allow it to do so.

Another obstacle to gratitude is often called a sense of entitlement. Instead of experiencing a benefaction as a good turn, people sometimes regard it as a mere payment of what they are owed, for which no one deserves any moral credit. While seeing that justice is done is important, supplanting all opportunities for genuine feelings and expressions of generosity can also produce a more impersonal and fragmented community.

Practicing gratitude

There are a number of practical steps anyone can take to promote a sense of gratitude. One is simply spending time on a regular basis thinking about someone who has made a difference, or perhaps writing a thank you note or expressing such gratitude in person. Others are found in ancient religious disciplines, such as meditating on benefactions received from another person or actually praying for the health and happiness of a benefactor.

In addition to benefactions received, it is also possible to focus on opportunities to do good oneself, whether those acted on in the past or hoped for in the future. Some people are most grateful not for what others have done for them but for chances they enjoyed to help others. To envision gratitude at its best, imagine a person hoping and perhaps even praying for an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.

An island that may resemble the one on which Robinson Crusoe was marooned. Nikos38/Shutterstock.com

In regularly reflecting on the things in his life he is grateful for, Defoe’s Crusoe believes that he becomes a far better person than he would have been had he remained in the society from which he originally set out on his voyage:

“I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me, even that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition, than I should have been a liberty of society, and all the pleasures of the world… It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days.”

Reflecting on generosity and gratitude, the great basketball coach John Wooden once offered two counsels to his players and students. First, he said, “It is impossible to have a perfect day unless you have done something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” In saying this, Wooden sought to promote purely generous acts, as opposed to those performed with an expectation of recompense. Second, he said, “Give thanks for your blessings every day.”

Some faith traditions incorporate such practices into the rhythm of daily life. For example, adherents of some religions offer prayers of thanksgiving every morning before rising and every night before lying down to sleep. Others offer thanks throughout the day, such as before meals. Other less frequent special events, such as births, deaths and marriages, may also be heralded by such prayers.

When Defoe depicted Robinson Crusoe making thanksgiving a daily part of his island life, he was anticipating findings in social science and medicine that would not appear for hundreds of years. Yet he was also reflecting the wisdom of religious and philosophical traditions that extend back thousands of years. Gratitude is one of the healthiest and most nourishing of all states of mind, and those who adopt it as a habit are enriching not only their own lives but also the lives of those around them.The Conversation

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor's Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are you as grateful as you deserve to be?

Are you as grateful as you deserve to be?

Gratitude is not only a great feeling but a healthy one.
Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.com

As a physician, I have helped to care for many patients and families whose lives have been turned upside down by serious illnesses and injuries. In the throes of such catastrophes, it can be difficult to find cause for anything but lament. Yet Thanksgiving presents us with an opportunity to develop one of the healthiest, most life-affirming and convivial of all habits – that of counting and rejoicing in our blessings.

Gratitude’s benefits

Research shows that grateful people tend to be healthy and happy. They exhibit lower levels of stress and depression, cope better with adversity and sleep better. They tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Even their partners tend to be more content with their relationships.

Perhaps when we are more focused on the good things we enjoy in life, we have more to live for and tend to take better care of ourselves and each other.

When researchers asked people to reflect on the past week and write about things that either irritated them or about which they felt grateful, those tasked with recalling good things are more optimistic, feel better about their lives, and actually visit their physicians less.

It is no surprise that receiving thanks makes people happier, but so does expressing gratitude. An experiment that asked participants to write and deliver thank-you notes found large increases in reported levels of happiness, a benefit that lasted for an entire month.

Philosophical roots

Giving thanks is important for our psyches and our souls.
Love You Stock/Shutterstock.com

One of the greatest minds in Western history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued that we become what we habitually do. By changing our habits, we can become more thankful human beings.

If we spend our days ruminating on all that has gone poorly and how dark the prospects for the future appear, we can think ourselves into misery and resentment.

But we can also mold ourselves into the kind of people who seek out, recognize and celebrate all that we have to be grateful for.

This is not to say that anyone should become a Pollyanna, ceaselessly reciting the mantra from
Votaire’s Candide, “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” There are injustices to be righted and wounds to be healed, and ignoring them would represent a lapse of moral responsibility.

But reasons to make the world a better place should never blind us to the many good things it already affords. How can we be compassionate and generous if we are fixated on deficiency? This explains why the great Roman statesman Cicero called gratitude not only the greatest of virtues but the “parent” of them all.

Religious roots

Gratitude is deeply embedded in many religious traditions. In Judaism, the first words of the morning prayer could be translated, “I thank you.” Another saying addresses the question, “Who is rich?” with this answer: “Those who rejoice in what they have.”

From a Christian perspective, too, gratitude and thanksgiving are vital. Before Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples, he gives thanks. So vital a part of Christian life is gratitude that author and critic G.K. Chesterton calls it “the highest form of thought.”

Gratitude also plays an essential role in Islam. The 55th chapter of the Quran enumerates all the things human beings have to be grateful for – the sun, moon, clouds, rain, air, grass, animals, plants, rivers and oceans – and then asks, “How can a sensible person be anything but thankful to God?”

Other traditions also stress the importance of thankfulness. Hindu festivals celebrate blessings and offer thanks for them. In Buddhism, gratitude develops patience and serves as an antidote to greed, the corrosive sense that we never have enough.

Roots even in suffering

In his 1994 book, A Whole New Life, the Duke University English Professor Reynolds Price describes how his battle with a spinal cord tumor that left him partially paralyzed also taught him a great deal about what it means to really live.

After surgery, Price describes “a kind of stunned beatitude.” With time, though diminished in many ways by his tumor and its treatment, he learns to pay closer attention to the world around him and those who populate it.

Reflecting on the change in his writing, Price notes that his books differ in many ways from those he penned as a younger man. Even his handwriting, he says, “looks very little like that of the man he was at the time of his diagnosis.”

“Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, and with more air and stride. And it comes down the arm of a grateful man.”

A brush with death can open our eyes. Some of us emerge with a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of each day, a clearer sense of our real priorities and a renewed commitment to celebrating life. In short, we can become more grateful, and more alive, than ever.

Practicing gratitude

When it comes to practicing gratitude, one trap to avoid is locating happiness in things that make us feel better off – or simply better – than others. In my view, such thinking can foster envy and jealousy.

There are marvelous respects in which we are equally blessed – the same sun shines down upon each of us, we all begin each day with the same 24 hours, and each of us enjoys the free use of one of the most complex and powerful resources in the universe, the human brain.

Much in our culture seems aimed to cultivate an attitude of deficiency – for example, most ads aim to make us think that to find happiness we must buy something. Yet most of the best things in life – the beauty of nature, conversation and love – are free.

There are many ways to cultivate a disposition of thankfulness. One is to make a habit of giving thanks regularly – at the beginning of the day, at meals and the like, and at day’s end.

Likewise, holidays, weeks, seasons, and years can be punctuated with thanks – grateful prayer or meditation, writing thank-you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and consciously seeking out the blessings in situations as they arise.

Gratitude can become a way of life, and by developing the simple habit of counting our blessings, we can enhance the degree to which we are truly blessed.

[ Thanks for reading! We can send you The Conversation’s stories every day in an informative email. Sign up today. ]The Conversation

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Thankful Blues

The Thankful Blues

BLUES SINGERS: Until their departure last night, Howard University's Afro-Blue turned heads with their tight, melodic sounds on NBC's "The Sing-Off."

“In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” 
1 Thessalonians 5:18 (KJV)

In everything.

Really.

Everything.

As I reflect on this Thanksgiving holiday, I can’t avoid thinking about many of the difficult things I’ve endured in the last 12 months.

Five months ago, I lost a part-time job in church ministry, a job in which I learned a lot, grew a lot, made a lot of great relationships, and felt a such a keen sense of calling and belonging that it became a core part of my identity.

Less than a week ago, I lost another part-time job in public speaking, a job in which I learned a lot, grew a lot, made a lot of great relationships, and felt such a keen sense of calling and belonging that it became a core part of my identity.

In both cases, I was immediately aware of some of the logistical benefits of freeing that time up to pursue other things, but that knowledge did nothing to blunt the sting of loss.

Losing those jobs hurt, and hurt bad.

Times like these, I have a hard time giving thanks.

Until, that is, I remember that many of the things I’m currently thankful for now — areas of success or blessing or peaceful satisfaction … these things have all been intimately intertwined with events and seasons of crushing pain and humbling defeat.

Struggles embattled give way to humility embraced, which leads to victory empowered.

Because this is beginning to sound a bit too much like a motivational poster, let me give you an example.

While I was on staff at my last church, I developed a technique to leading worship music that helped to compensate for a lack of a consistent band. It involved creating and replaying accompaniment tracks in the form of patterns, which helped me with all of my multitasking (leading vocals, leading the band, directing the singers, et cetera). I got pretty good at it, and when I realized that there were no existing resources to help others do the same thing, I decided to start one.

This was a pivotal decision for me, because it represented a strategic convergence of so many of my interests. Beginning this work, I felt as though I’d finally identified my calling from God. I was excited, motivated, and full of vision.

The irony of the situation, however, was that despite the fact that the genesis of my idea flowed out of my passion for multicultural corporate worship music, the logistical and emotional demands of my church job were such that I was unable to make much headway on my idea. So being asked to resign was, while difficult and painful, quite beneficial to the long-term success of my entrepreneurial ministry venture. It was, in many ways, the best-case scenario — despite the fact that it felt like my world was coming to an end.

Struggles embattled, humility embraced, victory empowered.

This is a lesson that all successful people have to embrace at some point, whether it’s Conan O’Brien getting kicked off The Tonight Show, or Afro-Blue being booted off The Sing Off.

And believe me, I was among the legion of fans shocked and offended by that last outcome, reading Ben Folds‘ explanation did little to assuage my anger. That Conan thing was sad and ridiculous, but this Afro-Blue thing feels like a travesty.

Yet, as I look back on that whole Tonight Show brouhaha, I can tell that Conan has become better for it. Conan himself was able to articulate this painful-yet-positive dynamic when he said the following:

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.… it’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.

My man Coco said these words last June during his commencement speech at Dartmouth College, an ironic note since Afro-Blue was eliminated from The Sing-Off in favor of The Dartmouth Aires, the Ivy League show choir from Hanover. And I have no doubt that the men and women of Afro-Blue, the pride of Howard University and DC’s finest, will continue to exhibit the poise, heart and talent that propelled them to their fourth-place showing on the megahit NBC a cappella singing competition.

I’m hopeful, of course, and not just for the obvious reason that all of the singers in Afro-Blue still have a tremendous future in music ahead of them (especially lead vocalist Danielle Withers).

I’m hopeful because, in the grand scheme of things, God can and does use all things to take his children and mold them into the people that He wants and calls them to be. And the extent to which we become more like Him is the extent to which we submit to His will, which sometimes requires profound heartbreak.

So in the meantime, I will have to resign myself to replaying Afro-Blue’s cover of “Put Your Records On” over and over, because … wow, that is my jam right now.

And for this, as for so many other things in life, good and bad, I will do what Paul charged the church in Thessalonica to do.

I will give thanks.