On New Year’s Eve in 2012, Parade Magazine editor and author Janice Kaplan made a resolution that changed her life. It wasn’t to get in shape or curb some annoying habit; she decided to simply be more grateful for her husband.
“I spent a month only finding positive things to say about him and to him,” Kaplan said. “It started out as a joke, but ended up being dramatic and wonderful. It changed my marriage.”
Kaplan decided to take her resolution on full-time for one year and turned her experience into a book, “The Gratitude Diaries.”
“It ended up being one of the best years of my life. If you look at it from the outside, nothing particular happened — I didn’t win the lottery or go to Hawaii,” Kaplan said. “But by reframing situations as they happened from a place of gratitude, I was able to change how I felt about things.”
Kaplan’s experience is backed by science from charity organization the John Templeton Foundation and the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which shows that being thankful even when times are tough can lead to major benefits.
University of California Davis psychologist and author Robert Emmons has conducted multiple studies over the past decade that have found gratitude to coincide with boosting optimism and happiness, reducing depression and anxiety, strengthening the immune system, and has even been shown to promote well-being among Vietnam War veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Emmons believes studying how gratitude impacts lives is some of the most important research being done today because gratitude costs so little compared to the benefits it offers.
“We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness. As such, we are called to gratitude,” Emmons said. “If we choose to ignore this basic truth, we steer ourselves off course. Studying gratitude reminds us of this basic truth.”
But in a survey published in 2013, the John Templeton Foundation found that while most Americans feel gratitude, most were also not great at expressing gratitude. Ninety percent said they were grateful for their family, 87 percent said they were grateful for their friends and more than 95 percent agreed that gratitude was important for parents to teach to children.
Yet only 44 percent of men and 52 percent of women reported that they expressed gratitude on a regular basis and 18 to 24-year-olds were the age group that expressed gratitude less often than any other.
That’s a shame, Greater Good Science Center science director Emliana Simon-Thomas said, because gratitude isn’t just a nice thing to think about around the holidays; it’s part of what makes us human. To not express gratitude puts people at a physical, mental and emotional disadvantage, but it’s not something we often make room for in our busy lives.
“The more evidence I see, the more strongly I am swayed that gratitude is a basic human capacity that we’ve adapted through evolution,” Simon-Thomas said. “I don’t think human beings are becoming less grateful, but our everyday lives make it challenging to express and reflect on gratitude.”
Culture of competition
Emmons said there are many ways modern life gets in the way of people expressing gratitude — first and foremost, people are busier than ever.
But even without time constraints, Simon-Thomas says humans, especially Americans, struggle with expressing gratitude because they don’t always see how others contribute to their success at work or in everyday life.
“We like to think of our accomplishments as having to do with our own strengths and think of the accomplishments of others as fortuitous privileges,” Simon-Thomas said. “It makes it hard to look at your day and think, this is only possible by an infinite number of other people making my place and comfort possible. Our entitlement gets in the way.”
Kaplan says that because so much of success, especially at work, is driven by competition, people sometimes think gratitude makes them weak.
“People are afraid of gratitude in some ways because we want a lot of stuff. We think it’s a way of saying everything is OK, don’t worry about it, this is as good as it gets — like we’re settling,” Kaplan said. “But gratitude and ambition can play very nicely together. Appreciating what you have right now doesn’t mean you can’t want more to come.”
It’s also easy to forget to be grateful when people constantly compare their own lives to what they see on social media and come up short.
“When we feel inferior as a result of seeing others doing more, it can chip away at our capacity for feeling (the) sense of common humanity that makes gratitude arise in us,” Simon-Thomas said.
Emmons also thinks American affluence doesn’t lend itself naturally to expressing gratitude. Hardship is a major ingredient in what he calls “spontaneous gratitude,” so Emmons says many people have to focus on expressing gratitude even when they’re down on their luck — a practice Emmons calls “defiant gratitude.”
“It is no coincidence that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims, and look what they endured. Gratitude is deepened and strengthened through confrontation with adversity,” Emmons said. “Without adversity, gratitude cannot flourish and certainly can’t be sustained when tough times arrive.”
The good news is, gratitude is something that’s easily achieved in life with little effort and cost, Kaplan said.
“It’s an easy, free thing that gives you back control over your own life,” Kaplan said. “It doesn’t make the bad stuff go away, but it allows you to say that no matter what happens, I can see the positive in it.”
Step one, Simon-Thomas says, is to count the blessings in life — whether in a letter, a simple phone call or in a daily gratitude journal.
“Just be as detailed as you can,” Simon-Thomas said. “Make sure you write out what happened, what that person did for you and how it impacted you.”
Simon-Thomas said if parents hope to raise grateful children, they should start by showing gratitude.
“Habit formation and modeling are sure-fire ways to ingrain gratitude into the spirit of a family,” Simon-Thomas said. “If you see your child do something that’s making life better, really take the time and make space to thank them and describe why what they did was good.”
Step two, Kaplan said, is to keep the fires of gratitude burning by being grateful every day. The results might be a revelation.
“Gratitude doesn’t have to be a once-a-year activity (at Thanksgiving) that we then let slip away,” Kaplan said. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to let this be the start of something rather than only having it for one day?”
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