Gratitude: The Emotional Super Food for Happiness
The 11th month officially kicks off the holiday season: Thanksgiving, Hannukah for Jews and Christmas for Christians. We usually have great expectations for celebration and togetherness at this time of year, but many experience anxiety and sadness instead. So, on the doorstep of Thanksgiving 2020—which is destined to be like none other because of the pandemic — I’d like to offer a suggestion that, when followed consistently, can reap massive advantages in life, lift the human spirit and keep it elevated for a lifetime.
The expression of gratitude—the very foundation of our Thanksgiving holiday—is an antidote to what ails us in many aspects of our emotional life. You see, part of the human condition is a struggle with some degree of ongoing, consistent negativity and unhappiness. Our brains get hijacked by forces such as the dirge of daily news; our worries about career, joblessness, financial woes and relationship discord; or concerns over our health and well-being, or that of our children. Negativity weighs us down and wears us out, and we are left emotionally and physically exhausted.
We need a counter-balance to all of this. We need to reset the chronic negativity; to recreate positivity in our lives continuously. And the most powerful weapon we have to achieve this is the heartfelt expression of gratitude. That is what will lead us down the path to sustainable joy.
Emanating from the Latin word “gratia,” meaning graciousness or gratefulness, gratitude is really an affirmation of all the goodness in our lives and a recognition that the goodness is, at least in part, outside of our own doing. The grateful believe life owes us little or nothing, and the good that does exist is truly a gift. It is a way of looking at life, and research shows that those who have discovered it and practice it daily are healthier and happier, living significantly more productive lives.
The research on gratitude is compelling. American psychologists Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, who are leading researchers in this field, conducted a study with three groups of participants. The first group recorded daily, positive experiences for which they were grateful. The second group recorded daily irritations in their lives, and the third group simply recorded events, absent intent to be positive or negative. After two-and-a-half months, the group who wrote about gratitude were more upbeat and optimistic than those in the other groups. They also felt better about their lives, exercised more and had fewer visits to their physicians.
While the research explains how grateful people are happier, why are they also healthier? Why do they sleep better and get sick less often? One possible explanation is the foundation they construct daily with positive thoughts. If we go to bed each night with fewer negative thoughts, sleep will come easier. We are not awake worrying about all the negativity in our world. And, of course, the medical community has long associated negative emotions with negative physical reactions, such as headaches or stomach pain. Feeling worried, stressed, angry and/or sad is simply bad for your immune system.
The message is at once simple and profound: gratitude is a way for us to appreciate what we have, instead of focusing on what we lack. It puts an end to the constant search for something new; some shiny object; some material gain.
The good news is that we can teach ourselves to be grateful. Beginning today, establish a daily habit of paying attention to events in your life, large and miniscule, that inspire gratefulness: sunrises and sunsets, the natural beauty of your surroundings, the love of your family, your health — the countless blessings in your life that you probably have not enumerated in years.
The return on this daily investment of your time and perseverance will be massive. In the meantime, may the coming holidays be filled with peace and a new-found sense of appreciation. Difficult to accomplish, perhaps, in a world inflicted with the scourge of a relentless pandemic, but so necessary for the human spirit.