Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gratitude Is Good for You

It feels strange, but we now need scientific studies to prove something that people have always known. Such is our age, and such is the prestige of science.

Scientists are accumulating evidence that shows, with exemplary clarity, that ethical behavior is therapeutic. Be a good person, act as a good person would, and you will feel better, function better, and be happier.

Given the circumstances, there are many ways to do the right thing. As Thanksgiving approaches, the one that is most in the news right now is giving thanks.

If you feel grateful and express it openly, you are going to do better than people who do not.

What if you do not have very much to feel thankful for? Psychologists suggest that you should do some mental exercises, the better to find something good that has happened to you, and to feel grateful for it.

If you ignore the nice things people do for you, the good things that happen to you, you are suffering from chronic ingratitude.

And few attitudes will more surely sabotage your relationships more quickly than will ingratitude.

Some might ask, as did the son of a woman who wrote to Miss Manners, whether young people are exempted from the requirement to send thank-you notes for wedding presents. Link here.

Have the old verities and pieties been rendered obsolete by social media? If so, then we should all worry for America's future.

As you might guess, Miss Manners has no sympathy for such a gross display of ingratitude. But, if gratitude is as important as the great thinkers and psychologists think that it is, then ingratitude will, at the least, keep you in therapy and on Prozac.

Of course, the greatest literary work about ingratitude is Shakespeare’s King Lear (The New Folger Library Shakespeare).    

On a more positive note, one of the most important Chinese virtues, filial piety, requires a constant show of gratitude by children to their parents.

In Confucian cultures children owe their parents respect and obeisance for all of the sacrifices their parents have made to bring them up. Children are so grateful for the good name their parents have bequeathed to them that they are honor bound to maintain it through their own good behavior. They are so grateful for the care their parents have bestowed on them that they feel obliged to care for their aging parents.

Filial piety is an obligation based on gratitude and responsibility, not on guilt. You feel obligated to your parents for what they gave to you, not because you feel guilty for the hostile and criminal intentions you have toward them.

If you look at life through the lens of Freud’s Oedipus complex, you would perform a different analysis. If, as Freud imagined, your mind is infected with criminal impulses toward your parents, your good behavior toward them will be an effort to expiate your sins, not a gesture of gratitude for all they have done for you.

In today’s Wall Street Journal Melinda Beck reports on the results of current psychological studies of gratitude. In her words: “Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They're also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.” Link here.

Given that the concept dates to the dawn of human history it should not come as that much of a surprise. Yet, we do not often think that we should do the right thing because it will make us happier and healthier, and also because it is the natural thing to do.

More often, we see good behavior as something of an imposition, a set of rules designed to control (or repress) our animal natures, thus, our inchoate, antisocial impulses.

Therapy and its culture have traditionally concerned themselves with past traumas, with abusive or inadequate parents, with high school bullies, and with your self-destructive, angry, jealous, hostile impulses.

Until Martin Seligman and others brought positive psychology into the therapeutic mix, psychotherapy had been trying to help people find our why they were getting it wrong. It wanted to explain the bad things that happened in the past, and to plumb the negative motives that either produced them or made them impossible to overcome.

A therapy based on classical ethics, however, tells people to stop obsessing about the past and to start counting their blessings.

Admittedly, it sounds like something you might have heard on Oprah, but, the research shows that when you look at what is good in your life and express gratitude for it you will improve your emotional well-being.

Not only is it more productive and constructive than looking at the worst, but it is also better than looking at what is good about everyone else’s life and resenting them for their good fortune.

Anyone who indulges such negative thinking will be prone to believe that others have achieved their success at his expense. This is hardly a formula designed to improve your friendships or to make you more likeable.

Where cognitive psychology instructs people to perform mental exercises that will make them increasingly aware of their need to feel grateful, I would qualify the point by saying that true gratitude lies more in the expression of thanks than in the emotion.

You are grateful when you express it, not when you feel it. And when you express it sincerely. An expression of gratitude is sincere when you return the favor. Sometimes thank-you is not enough.

Gratitude involves humility; it shows an ability to recognize that your own happiness and success depend on the good deeds of other people.

It’s one thing to be aware of the importance of connection, of interdependence, of belonging to a community. It’s quite something else to assert and affirm your connection to others by performing a gesture of gratitude.


Obsidian said...

Hi Doc,
Please pardon the OT tanget, but I thought you'd like to know this in case you haven't heard already:


Now, right after the townhall the article referenced went down, I wrote about it on my blog; in fact, the name of my post was called Obama Runs Into A Velma Hartsaw. You might be able to see the Google cache version of it if you look for it.

Anyway, as you know, I've made no bones about my often fierce criticism of Obama. Talk about prophetic...


Holla back. Methinks you might be interested in picking up where we left off earlier this month...


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Hi, Obsidian,

It's good to hear from you. Yes, I was aware of what happened to Velma Hart. It was very bad news indeed. And naturally I, along with just about everyone else, thought first that she had been fired because of what she said to Obama at the meeting.

But... and it's a big "but"... do we know for certain that she was fired for what she said and not for something internal to the organization?

Anyway, I join you and everyone else in wishing her the very best. Somehow I believe that she will land on her feet and find a better job.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I believe that she will land on her feet and find a better job

Perhaps in 2014....

Anybody want some action on whether she will vote for Obama again in 2012? Anybody?