Why Gratitude Makes Us Happier

Speaking to military families at a December 13th Toys for Tots event, First Lady Melania Trump expressed her hope that, “during this holiday season, people will remember it is not about gifts—it is about family, service, and gratitude.”

Truth be told, it’s not always easy to feel gratitude this time of year. For many people, the approach of Christmas brings anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, and melancholy. We get stressed about the gifts we have to buy, the plans we have to make, and the gatherings we have to host. We worry that whatever we’re doing just isn’t enough. We find ourselves envying friends, neighbors, and others. And we experience deeper-than-usual sorrow for the loved ones we’ve lost, the mistakes we’ve made, and the opportunities we’ve missed.

Yet as Mrs. Trump indicated, gratitude is the simplest remedy for the holiday blues. In a larger sense, it is the key to living a joyful life all year round.

That may sound like a corny message from the inside of a Hallmark card, but it’s backed by empirical research. In a trio of studies published in 2003, for example, psychologists Robert Emmons of UC-Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami found that individuals who deliberately focused on gratitude as part of their weekly or daily routine experienced a range of “emotional, physical, or interpersonal benefits,” including greater happiness, better sleep, and stronger connections to other people.

Discussing their results, Emmons and McCullough emphasized the connection between gratitude and relationships. “The experience of gratitude, and the actions stimulated by it, build and strengthen social bonds and friendships,” they explained. “Moreover, encouraging people to focus on the benefits they have received from others leads them to feel loved and cared for by others.”

Separate research, by psychologists Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina, Jonathan Haidt of NYU, and Shelly Gable of UC–Santa Barbara, examined gift-giving among college sorority sisters and how it affected the women’s feelings for one another. “Gratitude,” they concluded, “may initiate a relationship-building cycle between recipient and benefactor.”

By the same token, a lack of gratitude can make us feel alienated, neglected, aggrieved, and resentful, thereby hampering our ability to create and maintain meaningful, positive relationships.

In short: Gratitude is an essential lubricant of social harmony.

That’s true at the personal level, and also at the national level. This holiday season, many people are feeling utterly disgusted both with the state of American politics and with various trends in American culture. I sympathize. Yet we all should recognize that, if taken too far, our disgust could make things even worse. Despite America’s long list of serious challenges, our political and cultural inheritance remains one of the world’s most precious commodities.

The value of that inheritance—the way it enriches our lives each and every day—imposes certain responsibilities on us. We show our gratitude by acknowledging and embracing those responsibilities. To do otherwise is not only to be ungrateful, but also to weaken the historical bonds that define our identity as Americans.

As the late William F. Buckley, Jr. put it nearly thirty years ago:

We cannot hope to repay in kind what Socrates gave us, but to live without any sense of obligation to those who made possible lives as tolerable as ours, within the frame of the human predicament God imposed on us—without any sense of gratitude to our parents, who suffered to raise us; to our teachers, who labored to teach us; to the scientists, who prolonged the lives of our children when disease struck them down—is spiritually atrophying.

Again, if you have trouble feeling grateful for the state of America in December 2017, I completely understand. But ask yourself: Which year or decade would you prefer to go back to?

A hundred years ago, U.S. servicemen were fighting and dying in World War I. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of service members, along with hundreds of thousands of other Americans, died from the influenza pandemic.

Seventy-five years ago, U.S. troops were fighting and dying in World War II.

Fifty years ago, they were fighting and dying in Vietnam—more than 11,300 U.S. troops died there in 1967 alone—while America was experiencing some of the worst race riots in our history.

Twenty-five years ago, the Cold War had just ended, but the AIDS and crack-cocaine epidemics were still raging. Also in 1992, the Los Angeles riots produced horrifying scenes of urban dysfunction and social breakdown, and America’s overall violent-crime rate was 48 percent higher than it was in 2016.

Ten years ago, more than 900 U.S. troops died in Iraq, making 2007 the deadliest year of the war for American forces. Meanwhile, the global financial crisis and Great Recession were just beginning.

The point here is not to sugarcoat America’s current problems or deny that certain cultural trends have gotten worse over the past few decades. The point, rather, is that we must keep everything in perspective.

Maintaining perspective can help us remind ourselves of all the reasons for gratitude amid the seemingly endless barrage of negative news stories. It also can help us manage the weight of personal defeats or struggles.

As Robert Emmons—one of the psychologists and gratitude experts cited above—said in a 2016 Washington Post interview, “Gratitude is our best weapon, an ally to counter these internal and external threats that rob us of sustainable joy. In gratitude, we focus on the giftedness of life. We affirm that goodness exists, even among the rancor of daily life. This realization itself is freeing, liberating, redeeming.”

May we all have such a realization during the final days of 2017.

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