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The gratitude effect

We all know that giving thanks is integral to Christianity. But new science reveals the far-reaching benefits of expressing appreciation.

By Trisha Elliott

The illustrious Roman statesman and scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero, known for upholding republican principles, called gratitude the parent of all virtues half a century before Jesus walked the Earth. But the first empirical scientific study of gratitude wasn’t published until 2003. In a little over a decade, the relatively new field of gratitude studies has highlighted a laundry list of staggering benefits. Gratitude, it seems, is more than just an emotional sugar rush. On every front — spiritual, psychological, emotional, relational, academic, athletic — gratitude reduces the aches and pains of life.

“I am beginning to believe that gratitude, when viewed simply as a technique to make life happier, badly underestimates [its] true value,” says Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Emmons, now considered the world’s leading specialist on gratitude, stumbled into studying this virtue 15 years ago when he was invited to a scientific conference and told to become the expert on the topic. “I began conducting research right away because at the time there wasn’t any. It was the best assignment I was ever given,” he reminisces. “Now I am compelled by the power of this force to heal, energize and change lives.”

But just how gratitude changes lives is more complex than mumbling a polite “thank you” and more socially significant than a few feel-good neurons. The effects of gratitude are as complex and varied as its definition. The word stems from the Latin root gratia, meaning grace, graciousness or gratefulness, and is described as a feeling, a character trait and a world view. In nearly every definition, it implies recognizing an undeserved gift conferred by someone else.  In an article he co-wrote, Emmons describes gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.”

Regardless of how gratitude is defined, we covet it. One study found that in a list of more than 800 character traits, “grateful” hit the top four percent of likability. Maybe we intuitively know how good gratitude is for us, or perhaps it’s a trait baked into us as children.

Gratitude is cross-cultural, perhaps even cross-species — new studies show that primates also express gratitude. In humans, feelings of gratitude solidify between the ages of seven and 10, are at an all- time low when we are between 18 and 24 and then, like good wine, bloom with age: the older we get, the more grateful we are. But the sexes aren’t equally thankful. Women are more likely to feel grateful than men. Why? Researchers think that gratitude boils down in part to a sense of reliance on others for well-being — a state men are often socialized to avoid. The good news is that when boys express gratitude, it has a bigger impact on them than on girls.

The Apostle Paul is the Bible’s male model of gratitude. For at least a decade, I have recited his four-page letter to the Philippians during my Thanksgiving service. Paul was in dire straits when he wrote it: he was in prison and didn’t know whether he would live or die or how gruesome his end might be. It always gets to me. I doubt that in his shoes, I would have been capable of writing: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. . . . I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Maybe it’s his intentional choice to go down giving thanks that’s so moving. Or maybe it’s that at least once a year I need to be reminded that an attitude of gratitude won’t kick in with my next swanky shoe purchase.    

Research also suggests that gratitude is an antidote to materialism. The more grateful we are, the less we want, and the more we want, the less grateful we are. But what if we truly don’t have enough? Not just money but everything else? Critics of gratitude suggest that overdosing on gratitude can mask problems. There are times when life hands us lemons and our disposition rightfully puckers. But as with anything, gratitude requires discernment. “If gratitude is not beneficial, it’s because the focus is wrong,” explains Emmons. Even in the midst of despair, we can focus on the benefits that others are providing to us. “You really can’t overplay the hand of gratitude.”

Unless you don’t play it at all. Feeling grateful is one thing, expressing it is another. And as it turns out, how we express thanks matters. A perfunctory “thank you” doesn’t have as big an impact as a written note. In turn, a written note has a bigger bang when it’s read aloud to its recipient. We are most tickled when thanked publicly, and it doesn’t get much more public than posting on social media.

Two United Church ministers intentionally used Facebook to express gratitude every day for the last year. Rev. Laura Fouhse, minister at McClure United in Saskatoon and spouse of moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, told me that after Cantwell became Moderator and the challenging reality of living apart set in, she decided to keep a gratitude journal on Facebook to lift her spirits. Since January, she has posted something she’s thankful for each day. “I’m not prepared to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I take my role as support to Jordan very seriously, and I feel like I’m in a better place to do that when I’m feeling optimistic, hopeful and positive — and all of those things are much easier to hold onto when I’m practising gratitude,” she says.

Éric Hébert-Daly, a lay minister and the national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, has kept a similar year-long gratitude journal on Facebook — with a twist. Every day, his posts honour a friend or acquaintance. His final tribute was to his husband Scott. There’s a backstory: on a road trip, Hébert-Daly recited the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet How Do I Love Thee? to his husband and then started to count. “I had made a decision in my head that whenever Scott stopped me, I would make note of the number and then I would make a [corresponding] list of things that I loved about him. He stopped me at 503,” he posted. On the final day of his gratitude diary, Hébert-Daly published all 503 reasons. They ranged from “When you didn’t stop me from trying to train the cat to use the toilet” to “When you held my hand at the ROM in defiance of other people’s stares in 1991.”

When it comes to love, it turns out that a little bit of gratitude really does go a long way. Renowned relationship expert John Gottman contends that marriage “masters” have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. For every negative interaction, disagreement or hurt feelings, there are five appreciative, loving interactions that balance it. C.S. Lewis was onto something when, in 1958, he wrote, “It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”

You’d think that expressing gratitude is as natural as breathing. How hard is it to dash off a thank-you note or to thank a family member for doing the dishes? Yet, gratitude is oddly neglected. In a 2012 gratitude survey conducted for the John Templeton Foundation, 90 percent of respondents described themselves as grateful for their family and nearly as many for their closest friends. But just a little more than half of these respondents expressed gratitude on a regular basis. And people were less likely to express gratitude at work than any place else. Especially to a boss. Studies show that people are more likely to express gratitude to strangers than to family members.

Maybe we tend not to express gratitude to those closest to us because we expect them to be nice. Or maybe we’re just too self-absorbed.

Gratitude isn’t always easy. Kiran Martin should know. A doctor and modern-day Mother Teresa, Martin has devoted her life to promote health and community development in the poorest Indian slums. Still, she extolls the virtues of gratitude. “Gratitude is a conscious choice. . . . There are many obstacles to a grateful way of thinking, such as pervasive negativity, complaint, dissatisfaction, a sense of entitlement, focus on deprivation and suffering,” she writes in her personal blog.

The Bible is well acquainted with the challenges of gratitude. In the Gospel story we typically dust off at Thanksgiving, Jesus sends 10 people suffering with leprosy to the priests for healing, but only one of them returns to say thanks. Preachers typically concentrate on the nine who don’t show up rather than the one who did. In the past, researchers have done the same, focusing on the impediments to gratitude, including narcissism, materialism and suffering. Now they are asking a different question: Why do grateful people feel grateful? Why did the one return?

“It’s such a simple and important question. And the answer is that they think differently when someone does something kind for them,” explains Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. He tells me that scientists have identified a “grateful” outlook on life, a specific set of thought processes that kick into gear in the most thankful among us. “First, they acknowledge intent (that you went out of your way for me). Then they consider the cost (what you gave up to do something kind for me) and they reflect on the benefit (to what degree did I benefit from what you did for me),” says Froh. His voice brims with excitement. “There are 24 character traits: hope, zest, love of learning, wisdom. . . . Of all of these, gratitude has the strongest correlation to life satisfaction and is the most malleable. That’s what’s so beautiful. With time and effort, you can totally change your outlook. . . .  It’s always within your grasp.”

Maybe that’s why gratitude is so frequently hijacked. While it can be a panacea for many of the ills of the world, gratitude can also be a manipulative form of social control. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Signs in common areas that read “Thank you for not littering” or “Thank you for not smoking” are well-intended. The world could use a few less discarded candy wrappers and cigarette butts. But when tardiness is sloughed off or contentious emails are signed off “Thanks for your patience,” gratitude feels more controlling than sincere.

Patrick Dwyer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies “before the fact” gratitude, the way expressions of gratitude are used to pull people’s strings. Sometimes it works. In two online studies with over 600 participants each, Dwyer found that people who were simply told “thanks” were more likely to comply with a request than those who were told “thanks in advance for your help.” He chalks it up to what social psychologists call “persuasion awareness.” “If people are more aware that they are being persuaded, then they are less likely to comply. I think ‘in advance for your help’ boosts persuasion awareness,” he says.

There’s no denying that gratitude is persuasive. It’s even a well-known, but often underrated, financial incentive. Saying “thank you” is a cornerstone of fundraising, not just because it’s good etiquette, but because it’s also good business. According to fundraising guru Penelope Burk, 41 percent of donors who receive thank-you letters attribute their decision to give again specifically to the gratitude letter. Restaurant bills with “thank you” scrawled across them result in 11 percent more tips. 

Thanksgiving inspires generosity. It makes us want to pay it forward. “Every emotion we have is there for a reason,” says Froh. “It isn’t by chance. The function of gratitude is to do something kind for other people. It’s a moral motivator in that it makes you want to do good.” Gratitude is like social crazy glue; it bonds us.

Gratitude pioneer Emmons explains: “Life is about giving, receiving; it’s about dependency; it’s about acknowledging aid, relationships. Gratitude is the relationship-strengthening emotion. It drives generosity, compassion, volunteering, philanthropy. Can you imagine society without gratitude? Exchanges would be based purely on contracts. Without the moral glue of gratitude, society would crumble. We ignore gratitude at our own peril.”

Gratitude is inarguably central to all world religions, which might explain why religious people are twice as likely to express gratitude regularly. Gratitude is so integral to Christian experience that, in one study, a group of nuns and priests reported that of 50 different emotions they expressed to God, gratitude ranked second, just after love. Some scholars think that a religious worldview primes the gratitude pump, that belief in life as a gift from a benevolent God is more likely to dispose us to feel grateful. Gratitude is in our liturgical DNA, evident in countless spiritual practices such as saying grace before meals, offertory and pastoral prayers of thanks, and thanksgiving hymnody. The church’s cornerstone sacrament is sometimes referred to as the “Eucharist,” which literally means “thanksgiving.” The United Church Creed crescendos to “Thanks be to God” by design — gratitude is the finale of our faith testimony.

How gratitude functions in religious communities is a growing edge of gratitude studies. So far, much of the research has focused on individuals and couples, but scholars are turning their minds to groups, particularly workplaces.

“If you are going to spend 40-plus hours, a significant fraction of your life, in a particular place, you can’t subtract that from your equation of well-being,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Being well at work is really important to being well overall.” Simon-Thomas helps run a multimillion-dollar project, now in its fifth year, called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, aimed at funding gratitude studies and collaborating with community leaders to practically promote thanksgiving in organizations, particularly workplaces, schools and health centres. “You can purvey the science, tell the stories all day long but sit in the same old-fashioned cultural space. We’re trying to make it easy for organizations to sink their teeth into gratitude and make it the new norm.” For example, Simon-Thomas describes hosting brainstorming meetings with health-care leaders, sharing the science and asking questions like: “How can we give patients an easier way to thank their health-care providers? In the West, you see your provider for maybe 15 minutes, so we don’t have a lot of chance to say, ‘Thank you. You have been able to help me with something that is difficult in my life.’”

Gratitude has been in the air for eons. Science is the new guest at the Thanksgiving banquet that religions hosted long before the pilgrims. The insightful company is bringing refinement and appreciation to the table, dishing up tantalizing, critical questions: Should we teach our children about gratitude more than sharing because sharing makes giving an obligation, whereas gratitude prompts it without pulling strings? What expression of gratitude has the biggest impact on anxiety and depression? How can gratitude boost work performance and build trust? Under what conditions are we most likely to pay gratitude forward? Questions like these have potentially world-changing implications. Thanksgiving matters. This we know. But now we’re learning how to make the most of it.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.

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