Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

An Attitude Of Gratitude

November 19, 2001

This Thanksgiving is different. Because of the September 11 terrorist strikes in the United States, we take less for granted. Our lives are less secure. We are threatened in our homeland. The economy is reeling from all the consequences of terrorism on the way we live and spend our money. We feel a collective loss of life because of the innocent victims of terrorism.

Despite the sudden reversal of fortune and instead of feeling angry, bitter, and vengeful, our nation has responded by reconnecting itself to our deeper values of patriotism, public service and sacrifice. We have witnessed the courage and selflessness of our first responders, the firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel who put their lives on the line to help others. We appreciate our military which is seeking out our enemies and putting itself in harm’s way to protect us.

We have drawn closer to one another as a community and nation. We have reached out to help the survivors and the families of victims of terrorism. We have mourned with them. We value our families more and more openly express our love. As a country we have turned to God with deeper spirituality, understanding and solace. We exercise our faith and hope to help us through these troubled times of heightened anxiety.

We are acutely aware of what we have now - that it has been threatened or in some cases lost. We have become a more grateful people. Our national holiday of Thanksgiving is when we have family gatherings and a ritualized meal to express our gratitude. Being grateful on a daily basis is best but adding a special day of gratitude is instructive to our culture as we reaffirm to each other the importance of this virtue.

What is gratitude? How does it relate to happiness, coping, and well being? Psychologist Michael McCullough of Southern Methodist University presented a summary of his research on gratitude at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association this past August. Here of some of the key points he made on how gratitude works in our lives.

Gratitude is an overall tendency to recognize the contributions of others to the good things that are happening in our lives. Feeling grateful is experienced as a pleasant and positive emotion. More that an emotion, more than a mood; it is a habitual way of looking at the world. To his surprise, McCullough found that gratitude isn’t related to daily events but more a framed attitude of appreciation for life in general.

Grateful people see gifts in the trivial and mundane. Highly grateful people possess a world view in which everything they have - even life itself - are gifts. They don’t take the little things of life for granted.

McCullough’s research shows that grateful people:

- recognize when good things happen to them.

- feel gratitude more intensely when something good happens.

- feel gratitude many times during the day for the simplest acts of kindness or politeness.

- feel grateful for a number of things at any one time. They feel grateful for their families, jobs, health, and friends, along with the specific positive benefits they perceive.

- see how the efforts of others contribute to their happiness. Not only that, but they also make the connection between how many people’s efforts contribute to the good outcomes in their lives. Less grateful people focus narrowly on just one or two people for the same outcome. Grateful people don’t discount their own efforts. They stretch their appreciation to include other causes and contributions for their success.

- are more empathic. They are more agreeable. They display a greater willingness to forgive and not hold on to hurts and resentments.

- are more spiritual. Their ability to see the contributions of others to their lives is also extended to God and God’s intervention. This isn’t true for the negative events in their lives. McCullough found that gratitude isn’t confined to those with formalized religious faith but is also shared by those who have a sense of the divine and spirituality in the Universe and believe in the interconnection of all living things.

- experience less depression and anxiety. McCullough points out that we can consciously elevate our moods by cultivating and expressing gratitude.

- are more optimistic, hopeful and more socially engaging. They feel happy.

- are better able to cope with acute and chronic stressful life events. Gratitude might be the mediating factor that explains why religious people have better physical and mental health outcomes when faced with a health crisis.

- are not as envious. Grateful people don’t find happiness in material things, influence, power or sex appeal. They don’t judge their worth by worldly standards. They are less envious and resentful of another’s success and possessions. Grateful people compare themselves to those less fortunate than themselves.

- are judged by others as kind, warm-hearted and generous with their resources. Not only do they see people being good to them but they also notice another’s plight, and are more sympathetic and helpful.

In the cemeteries of Denmark, there is a common epitaph on the headstones, "Tak", which means "thanks." What a wonderful word to express the gift of their lives and use to all who come to remember them. If they lived with a thankful heart, they had a good life.