TODD: Why the gratitude challenge that’s all the rage on social media can make you happier.
‘ Iinvite you to name three things you are grateful for — and to do so for the next seven days.”
That’s how a new competition is buzzing across the Internet, as multitudes of North Americans engage in the Gratitude Challenge. A bit like the Ice Bucket Challenge, except warmer, the Gratitude Challenge has been building in advance of Thanksgiving in Canada ( Monday) and the U. S. ( Nov. 27). It encourages people on the web to engage in an old spiritual tradition: counting one’s blessings.
In this secularized Internet ritual, throngs of people on Facebook and other social media sites are saying they’re grateful for friends, parents, husbands, wives, children, jobs, pets, democracy, the seasons, cities, doctors, health care, nature, freedom, bicycles and certain pasta dishes.
Even though the outbreak of gratitude echoes the prayers of thanks that have long been spoken in the sanctuaries of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, a fresh twist with the Gratitude Challenge is it is, in part, fuelled by new social science data.
Studies, particularly by socalled positive psychologists, have found that people who feel grateful, on average, have lower stress levels, lower blood pressure, more satisfying relationships, higher grades, smoke less, get in fewer arguments, feel a stronger sense of community and are more likely to donate money or volunteer their time.
Two popular books in the burgeoning field of gratitude are Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis; and Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, by Berkeley University neuropsychologist Rick Hanson.
Their research seems to support a stand taken in the 1300s by the European mystic Meister Eckhart, who said, “If the only prayer you said was ‘ thank you,’ that would be enough.”
Eckhart’s sentiment has echoed through the ages; with a grateful heart being praised as possibly the highest virtue by everyone from Albert Schweitzer to Kathleen Norris, the Dalai Lama to Leonard Cohen.
Before she ever heard of the Gratitude Challenge phenomenon, Vancouver’s Maggie Langrick, president of LifeTree Media Inc., began her own online gratitude practice in January, as a New Year’s project: posting daily thanks to Instagram and Facebook.
It’s important to notice wonderful occurrences, Langrick says, otherwise their impact can be lost. “My thanks ranged from big things, like my friends and family, to small or simple good things, like public transit or a glass of wine on a Friday night.” She enjoyed the way some online friends followed her example.
Langrick, a former editor at The Vancouver Sun, compares the Gratitude Challenge to the so- called Art Challenge, in which people nominate each other to post favourite works of art.
“There is a positive, feel- good factor to the Gratitude Challenge,” Langrick says. “We get a glimpse into each other’s personal values and feelings, which further bonds us.”
Social psychology researchers such as Emmons have found that religious or spiritual people are the most inclined to express gratitude, for small and big things. But the Gratitude Challenge, which has been taken up by many non- religious people, reveals how the spirit of Thanksgiving is universal.
Indeed, some noted atheists have been urging more nonreligious people to feel thankful. In the book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown- Up Idealists, American philosopher Susan Neiman calls on atheists to keep an open heart and express gratitude for love and life itself: “For being in the grip of something vaster than you are.”
Can there be downsides to expressing gratitude?
There is a tradition in one stream of Judaism that suggests publicly expressing gratitude can sometimes appear like boasting. The question of sentimentality also arises. And, as hard- nosed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, some thanks can be a form of obsequiousness or meant to curry favour.
Such cautions aside, however, the Gratitude Challenge seems more than fine, especially when the Internet often seems used mostly to market things, and sometimes for harassment. It’s hard to criticize finding another way to connect people. And the Gratitude Challenge may, among other things, help people grow into the habit of expressing thanks to others.
A Vancouver Sun poll this year found most British Columbians feel people are becoming less polite. One example of declining etiquette may be the inability some people have to say thanks — either in person or by email, let alone a card in the mail — to those who have gone out of their way to help them.
When in doubt, it seems wise to express thanks, both publicly and especially privately. It doesn’t cost anything. It is a tangible sign you care. And it builds community.
And real gratitude often leads to action. As Emmons has found in his research, true gratitude is motivating. “When we feel grateful,” he says, “we are moved to share the goodness we have received with others.”
Grateful people give back.