Gratitude is Good for You — Really!

Doing so may not always be easy, but empirical research suggests that being grateful can help foster an overall sense of well-being and happiness. Taking note of the many things we have to feel thankful about can play a highly constructive role in the development of our world view and our character.

In the United States, the holiday season kicks off with the celebration of Thanksgiving, a tradition that dates back to the early European settlers on the North American continent, grateful for the harvest and for the hospitality of the native inhabitants. This festive time has now become synonymous with giving thanks and counting one’s blessings. But I wonder how many know how good it is for one’s psychological health to recognize and express the things for which we can all be grateful.

In The Psychology of Gratitude [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis points to the empirical research that demonstrates not only how positive an emotion gratitude is, but how instrumental it can be in promoting an overall sense of well-being and happiness. He also argues that taking note of the many things we have to feel thankful about can play a highly constructive role in the development of our world view and character. But getting to this positive frame of mind is often not very easy. We have to train ourselves, it seems, to recognize the good things that come our way and to be thankful for them. Nonetheless, it’s a most worthwhile undertaking, as he argues in another book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

In my own book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I suggest that modern culture promotes a sense of entitlement, which makes it particularly challenging to develop a healthy sense of gratitude. I also make the case for the view that feelings of entitlement are necessarily toxic not only to personal development but also to interpersonal relations. I must confess that I was not very familiar with Professor Emmons’ work when I first developed “the ten commandments of character development” featured in it. But based on abundant case history research with individuals trying to solidify a positive and healthy sense of self, I was already convinced about how crucial it is to find a spot in one’s heart for this positive emotion when I exhorted:

Remember that you are not entitled to anything. Your very life is an unearned gift. Strive to be grateful for the many gifts you’ve received. Regard your life and the miracle of creation with appropriate awe and appreciation. Gratitude will enable you to develop a sense of obligation to value, preserve, and promote life and to respect all aspects of creation. Knowing how indebted you really are will keep you from feeling entitled.

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Whereas feelings of entitlement inevitably lead to irresponsible actions and bitter feelings when feeling “denied” satisfaction of one’s wants, gratitude begets a sense of reverence for life and a sense of well-being when we do our part to help sustain it. It’s hard to imagine a person with genuine awe and respect for the wonders of creation callously polluting and destructively consuming. Similarly, within the realm of human relations, it’s hard to imagine a person who really values life and the well-being of all treating another human being (or even an animal, for that matter) with callous or cruel indifference. So you see, gratitude is not just a nice thing to have. It’s something we really need to have to be genuinely healthy and whole.

Whether or not you live in a part of the world that incorporates “thanksgiving” into a ritual celebration, it’s helpful at this time of the year to pause and reflect on the many good things you have. Having struggled with some significant health issues in the past few months, I know intimately just how important this is. And although it was a formidable struggle at times, all I really had to do to feel better was to think for a few moments on the many blessings I enjoy. I have my family and friends. I have the love and support of many. And I’ve been given the experience of another day on this incredible planet. In truth, I have it all, even though I didn’t earn a single minute of it. Knowing that, and savoring it on the deepest level, I am truly well.

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