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Science and Thanksgiving

tomSince 1863, Thanksgiving Day has been set aside as a national holiday for expressing and celebrating our collective gratitude for our abundance. It’s perhaps an auspicious time to think about how gratitude fits into our lives. The value of cultivating gratitude has been understood for millennia by philosophers and by virtually all of the world’s spiritual traditions. In the twelve step programs, cultivating “an attitude of gratitude” is routinely practiced as an antidote to the negative thinking that often characterizes alcoholics and addicts in early recovery. Yet, despite the fact that it has long been understood as highly valuable, gratitude didn’t become the focus of empirical psychological research until the beginning of this century.

Dr. Robert Emmons- a University of California, Davis, professor- has spent much of his professional life researching gratitude, and is nationally recognized as one of the leading experts on the subject. He describes what he’s learned in his best-selling book, Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. “Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished,” he contends. “Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. People are moved, opened and humbled through expressions of gratitude.” Emmons found that when people make a daily, long-term commitment to focusing attention on the aspects of their lives for which they are grateful, they experience measurable and substantial improvements in their well being.

In one experimental comparison, for instance, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. A related benefit was observed in personal goal attainment. Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects who didn’t keep the lists.

Subjects who focused on gratitude experienced decreased stress in their lives. They reported increased levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, vitality and life satisfaction, and lower levels of depression and stress. Perhaps most importantly, those who felt grateful were more likely to help others and to feel loved themselves. Apparently gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people, because one act based on gratitude encouraged another.

But cultivating gratitude requires work. It is, according to Emmons, a “chosen attitude.” To learn to live in gratitude, we must be willing to let go of the seductions of the victim mentality, overcome habits of focusing on what we don’t have, and instead, develop the habit of learning to “want what we have” and to see life as an unearned benefit.

In my experience in the LGBT community, some people are highly resistant to doing practices to cultivate gratitude because it reminds them too much of religion, to which many of us are understandably allergic. That’s why it’s important to emphasize that this work can be done as an entirely secular, psychological practice, whose purpose is to increase subjective well being. It doesn’t have to be based on any kind of religious beliefs. In his book, Emmons offers ten practical methods for cultivating the capacity for gratitude. He believes that, for those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and commit to the work, solid research demonstrates that there are enduring benefits, including increased happiness, improved health, and stronger relationships.

Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website it www.tommoon.net.