Gratitude is among the cardinal virtues in all the ancient wisdom texts, including the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Koran. The Roman philosopher Seneca explained “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
More modern philosophers agree: Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote that In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that our life become rich.”
Psychologist Robert Emmons, in his book Thanks, a book for which I am very grateful and from which my talk today is very much borrowed, writes that “I am not neutral about gratitude; I believe it to the best approach to life; Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, and it transforms.”
Emmons is one among many scientists who are joining the religious thinkers and the philosophers in declaring the importance of gratitude.
First, of course, we need to understand better what we mean by gratitude; gratitude is not simply saying thank you (though that isn’t a bad start). Emmons explains that gratitude can be best understood in two stages, and that both stages are active work.
First, gratitude is acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life: we “affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living.”
Second, is the recognition that “the source of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self; it is a recognition and a humility that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contribution of others.”
This second statement is especially meaningful today, for this audience, welcoming grandparents and other family members and friends to our school: you are most certainly some of the most important people in our students’ lives, without whom they could not be where they are today.
Gratitude, in this more elaborate definition, is not easy: no cardinal virtue is. Albert Einstein found gratitude challenging: he said he had to remind himself a hundred times a day of how much he depended on other people; he said “I must exert myself in order to give in measure as I have received and I am still receiving.”
We all can easily find ourselves slipping into the Bart Simpson mindset:
when asked in one episode at the family dinner table, Bart offered these words: Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.
It takes conscious effort to recognize and realize that so much of what we enjoy in life, so much of the pleasures and the benefits we enjoy, come to us from the work and contributions of others. As Ben Stein, the conservative Republican economist and sometime actor, says, “We’re all heirs to a society of freedom and plenty that most of us did absolutely nothing to earn. It just fell into our laps.”
Developing a sense of gratitude, and practicing the act of gratitude, is a discipline: “it is morally and intellectually demanding. We have to work at it. It must be consciously cultivated and actively practiced.”
Students, you may be thinking that I am asking you to adopt this practice because it will help make others happier, because it will make you a better person in the way you are viewed by others, because it is is more ethical, perhaps. Those things are true, and they are not bad things.
But what psychologists are learning from scientific research is that practicing gratitude is a good idea not because of what it does it for others, or because the Bible says we should, but because it will help you be happier, healthier, and longer-lived. This evidence for all this is powerful and compelling.
Gratitude, Emmons says, “is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives.” He discusses and summarizes many research studies, studies which show that when people actively count their blessings they have a much easier and better time sleeping; that the more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are; that those who practice gratitude have longer and happier marriages; that they live years longer.
In one study, participants in the gratitude condition felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions. They were a full 25% happier than the other participants; they reported fewer health complaints and even spent more times exercising.
To practice gratitude, we must take action. Every evening, perhaps, you might decide to think to yourself what things happened that day for which you are especially appreciative. Emmons recommends a gratitude journal, in which you write down for yourself each and every event and person for which you are grateful.
Drawing from the Buddhist tradition, there is a practice entitled Naikan, reflecting upon three questions:
- What have I received from _________________?
- What have I given to_____________________?
- What troubles and difficulty have I caused____________?
Emmons also suggests we take time each day to indulge in our senses: to see the colors, to smell the flowers, to hear the chirps and laughter, to taste the fresh fruit, to touch the skin or fur of those we love: if we do so with appreciation, we are exercising a form of gratitude.
If we are serious about gratitude, we can also put in our lives cues and reminders for the practice: quotations on our frig, for instance, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift;” or this one from author Melody Beattie: “Gratitude can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Emmons also suggests that we can program our smartphones to set off beeps at random times in the day, directing us to count our blessings right then and there on the spot.
Students and visitors, enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday, and as you do, consider the wisdom of the Ben Stein, who as an economist and the head of a game show, Win Ben Stein’s Money, gets asked often about how best to get rich quickly:
I cannot tell you anything that, in a few minutes, will tell you how to be rich. But I can tell you how to feel rich, which is far better, let me tell you firsthand, than being rich. Be grateful– It’s the only totally reliable get-rich-quick scheme.