Gratitude a holiday gift that keeps giving the whole season
The holiday season – traditionally from Thanksgiving through early January – is a time for feeling grateful. Usually, we are expected to be thankful if someone does us a favor, or if by chance, fortune unexpectedly smiles our way. For religious people, of course, gratitude is a daily prerequisite. A day without gratitude is like a day without sunshine.
Psychologists are now taking a much more serious look at the links between positive emotions like thankfulness and general well-being, both physical and mental. They are finding that gratitude, more often than not, makes us better people.
People who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others or to God tend to have higher energy and greater optimism. They also suffer less stress and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population at large.
The results remain the same even when the researchers factor out such categories as age, health and income, which nullifies the notion that it’s easy to feel grateful only if you’re young, wealthy, or healthy. Whether you’re younger or older, rich or poor, well or ill, it’s all the same. Gratitude doesn’t depend on any of them.
The research also reveals that grateful people tend to be less materialistic than others and suffer less anxiety about how much they own or how much it’s all worth. People of very modest means or victims of personal tragedy frequently report their heartfelt appreciation for existing conditions, while very prosperous and successful people often display little gratitude at all.
I remember hearing about the director of a nonprofit focused on the working poor following funding cutbacks. “There’s no question,” he said, “funding is down, but what is astounding,” he added, “is how modest the expectations are.”
He then proceeded to tell about one particular client at the center – a middle-aged woman whose husband had disappeared, her son was shot to death in a drive-by shooting, and she is suffering from increasing paralysis in both her legs.
Because the past summer was so brutally hot, the director offered her a window air conditioner for her apartment to ease her discomfort.
“Oh, heavens,” she said, “I don’t need an air conditioner. All I’d ask for is a fan for my bedroom. That would be more than sufficient. You go save that money and spend it on somebody else who needs it more than I do.”
And then the director finally asked her, “Mary, how are things going for you?” and she said, “Oh, I am very blessed; God has been good to me and I am thankful every day for His mercies.”
Gratitude is clearly not a function of material well-being. Why then, in light of all the accumulated wisdom on this subject, are Americans not more aware of the value of gratitude? Perhaps one reason is our modern fixation on self-reliance. Two supreme American virtues are independence and rugged individualism.
Clearly, these have produced enormous economic and political benefits. But they have exacted a heavy price as well.
People who believe they are masters of their own destiny find it uncomfortable to be grateful. People who cling fiercely to their rugged individualism don’t want to think about their indebtedness to others, and gratitude implies dependency and vulnerability.
Hard as it is for many to admit, dependency and vulnerability are facts of life. We are all dependent upon one another. The holiday season deserves our highest regard because it is good for our mental and spiritual well-being. The surest way to a healthy heart is a grateful heart. Gratitude is a fabulous formula for improving human life every day for all one’s years.
Micah Greenstein is senior rabbi of Temple Israel.