GRATITUDE: THE KEY TO HAPPINESS

Maggie Gallagher

According to a just released Fox News poll, 96 percent of American voters feel thankful this Thanksgiving -- 79 percent of us tell a pollster we feel "very thankful."

That's good news. According to a raft of new empirical studies in the discipline of "positive psychology," gratitude is good for you.

Take, for example, a study by Hofstra professor Jeffrey J. Froh and colleagues that appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies. (Yes, we really do have a whole peer-reviewed journal dedicated to studying happiness in this great country of ours!)

In "Gratitude and the Reduced Costs of Materialism in Adolescents," Froh and his colleagues surveyed 1,035 high school students and found that gratitude "uniquely predicts" all the better outcomes measured: higher grade point average, life satisfaction, social integration, and less envy and depression. "Materialistic youth seem to be languishing, while grateful youth seem to be flourishing," the authors conclude.

It's not just that people with better lives have more to be grateful for. Two pioneers in the field of gratitude study, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, randomly assigned people to one of three groups: a group asked to record their daily (or weekly) hassles and burdens; a group asked to list the things they should be grateful for; and a neutral control group. Those who focused on gratitude reported greater "positive affect" -- i.e., happiness -- than those who focused on their problems. This was even true of a special sample of people with a neuromuscular disease.

And while all gratitude is good, gratitude to God is especially powerful, according to a new study in the September issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology. Harvard Medical School professor David Rosmarin and colleagues compared religious gratitude to other forms of gratitude and concluded: "Religious gratitude added unique variance in predicting mental well-being, over and above general gratitude. This suggests that being grateful to God enhances the psychological benefits of gratitude."

Gratitude may be an inherently religious emotion -- to be grateful is to acknowledge that our whiny, desiring self, is not, in fact, the center or source of the universe. On Froh's faculty page at Hofstra he has appended, as his favorite quote, this thought from G.K. Chesterston's book "Orthodoxy":

"We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?"

One of the things I'm grateful for is the birthday present of being an American, born in a country that before it even was a nation, celebrated the holiday of Thanksgiving.

The Canadians have it, and Liberia, established by freed American slaves, celebrates it. Whaling ships brought Thanksgiving to the Norfolk Islands in Australia, where it is still celebrated. Grenada has a Thanksgiving Day, but it celebrates the American invasion of Grenada under President Ronald Reagan that liberated that tiny island from a despotic ruler. Japan has "Labor Thanksgiving Day" in late November established by national decree in 1948 to celebrate the new post-World War II constitution and the expansion of workers rights and human rights. In Japan, it appears to have evolved into an occasion for public labor rallies, not for private family feasts of gratitude.

It's a distinctively American thing.

People everywhere celebrate the harvest with feasting, but almost no one else has a national tradition of setting aside one day a year to give thanks to God for all our blessings.

One day a year that no one has yet figured out how to commercialize properly: Gather together, ask the Lord's blessing, eat turkey and stuffing, watch football and just be grateful.

For this, I'm truly thankful.

(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)


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