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Central California Life Magazine

The origins and benefits of giving thanks

Nov 19, 2014 04:17PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

The origins and benefits of giving thanks

by Bradley T. Wajda, D.O.

Of our many holidays, Thanksgiving is the one we can all celebrate – at least in spirit.

A great deal of reliable evidence suggests that practicing gratitude enhances the quality of your life. Gratitude can be defined as a feeling toward a person or circumstance that contributes (or attempts to contribute) to your well-being. Feelings of gratitude can occur intentionally or unintentionally. 

Gratitude has been the subject of extensive study, from its origin to its purpose. Michael McCullough, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. He has devoted much of his career to investigating where gratitude comes from and how it affects us. McCullough notes that the field of psychology tends to view gratitude as a social phenomenon rather than a psychological one. In other words, psychologists have believed that people thank one another because they have been told to and not out of any inherent compulsion. McCullough disagrees. He believes gratitude is as primal and instinctual as love, fear and anger.

McCullough suggests one of three possible origins for gratitude. The first possibility is that gratitude functions as a “moral barometer” within relationships. With this possibility, the recognition and acknowledgement of gratitude between two people may provide the basis for supporting what biologists have called "reciprocal altruism" – i.e., laying a foundation for the exchange of future kindnesses. The second possibility is what we have come to call “pay it forward,” the act of random kindness that prompts the recipient to propagate the kindness on to untold others (also resulting in reciprocal altruism).

The third possibility is considered by McCullough to be the most compelling of the three. The purpose of gratitude may have helped our ancestors to convert relationships with strangers or distant acquaintances into friendships – a powerful survival instinct resulting in alliances. This third possibility appears to be corroborated by the fact that we tend to feel more gratitude toward strangers than we do toward relatives. Gratitude motivates us to deepen relationships with people whom we currently don’t know all that well.

Niklas Luhmann, Ph.D., was a German sociologist who wrote about a concept called “emotional inertia.” Inertia is the tendency to resist change. When applied to emotions, it means that once we form an emotion or attitude, we tend to biasedly interpret our life experiences to reinforce our original emotion. An example would be that people who are trusting tend to see that their trust as justified, while people who distrust tend to see their distrust as justified. This emotional inertia indicates a sense of primacy – being a primal instinct – as suggested by McCullough. To apply this to gratitude, just look at the "pay it forward" scenario in which the inertia of the gratitude carries forward – people want to find ways of experiencing and expressing gratitude.

It is important to remember that gratitude is not a simple-minded optimism that denies bad things happen. Instead, gratitude acknowledges that good still occurs despite the bad. This is a sophisticated level of psychological development demonstrating an acceptance that both good and bad traits co-exist in people or situations. To see this in everyday life, we need only look at the responses of those who have undergone dramatic problems – car accidents, fires – who summarize their experiences by saying, among other things, ‘We were so lucky.” Of course, if they were entirely lucky, the bad thing would not have happened. Their response indicates a psychological acceptance that both good and bad traits co-exist in people or situations – in other words, gratitude includes the acceptance of both the good and the bad while focusing on the good.

Dr. Robert A. Emmons reviews the role gratitude plays in human development and existence in his book “Thanks!” He describes the results of a 10-week study from 2003 in which he had participants keep journals. He divided the participants into three groups. One group wrote down five things to be grateful for each week. Another group wrote down five problems they faced each week. The remaining group wrote down five things for each week, with no instructions to focus on either positive or negative events. The results revealed that the group keeping track of things to be grateful for presented as more optimistic and felt more satisfied with their life. They also reported exercising more and had fewer physical complaints as compared to the other two groups. 

Another study conducted by Emmons in 2003 recruited participants with painful non-life-threatening neuromuscular disorders causing serious debilitation. For 21 days, one group of participants listed what they were grateful for, while the other group simply wrote about their experiences without being instructed to focus on a specific type of event. Again, there were large differences between groups, with the group focusing on gratitude being much more optimistic. More intriguingly, they also had improved quality and quantity of sleep.

An abundance of research shows that grateful people tend to be less depressed, envious and greedy. Grateful people also earn more money, sleep better and get fewer infections than those who are less grateful. A 2010 study from the University of North Carolina documents the obvious: Small gestures of gratitude show respect for others and improve relationships.

You can incorporate gratitude into your life and practice thanksgiving all 365 days of the year. Begin by being mindful of reasons to be thankful, either by keeping a journal or by maintaining a mental list. Prayer and meditation are other ways to focus on an attitude of gratitude.

I will set an example by thanking you for reading this article.