Happiness – what it is, how to measure it, how to produce or attain it – is a big deal in the sciences these days.
Sociologists and economists ponder “gross national happiness” alongside more conventional indicators of how well countries are doing. Psychologists and neurobiologists investigate what’s going on in our brains as we pursue or grasp happiness, or as it eludes us. Medical scientists track the effects of subjective well-being on physical health.
And one factor pops up again and again: gratitude. Grateful people, it seems, are happy people. A 2010 Wall Street Journal article summarises the findings of a growing body of research:
“Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.”
It’s not simply that happy people have more to be thankful for, either. Researchers have observed that those reporting low levels of happiness at the outset of a study reap greater benefits from the practice of gratitude than those who were already fairly happy.
So becoming more thankful seems like a wise move. But is it just something we can switch on? Advocates for gratitude suggest that it is a habit that can be assiduously cultivated: by regularly writing gratitude letters, or gratitude “journaling”; by learning to count blessings, acknowledge the ways in which we’re dependent on others (our train drivers, baristas, families, doctors), or pay attention to the small joys and beauties of everyday life.
And what is probably the largest-scale, mass mobilisation of gratitude is playing out across the US today, in that national holiday known as Thanksgiving. Part harvest festival, part commemoration of an historic feast shared by pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, and part religious exercise – it was declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as a day of “thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” – these days, Thanksgiving is primarily a celebration of food and of family.
But as Americans sit around groaning tables and enumerate their blessings to one another, they may want to take note of one of the most curious findings of all this happiness/gratitude research. This not-very-scientific video, “The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude”, illustrates it perfectly. The makers of the video invite participants to think of somebody who has been influential in their lives, and then write down what that person has done for them. They then take things one step further. Participants are asked to call the person (if still alive, and in whatever time zone) and read out what they’ve written.
Those who were unable to contact the person they wrote about still experienced an increase in happiness (measured by camouflaged questionnaires taken before and after the exercise). But those who could communicate their gratitude to the proper person experienced a much more significant increase. Gratitude works best if it’s not only felt, but expressed.
What does this mean for the gratitude we feel in response to a glorious sunset, the birth of a child, a restoration of health, the return of summer? Perhaps a majority of the things that we’re most thankful for have no obvious benefactor. This is the grateful atheist’s dilemma: where to direct those reflexes of gratitude that arise out of the most cherished realities of our lives.
In a chapter in his book on the Psalms, entitled “A Word about Praising”, C. S. Lewis describes the giving of thanks or praise as “the appointed consummation” of pleasure: “the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment”. Religious believers of all stripes have a bit of a reputation for relinquishing the full enjoyment of earthly blessings in favour of a shadowy future reality; the science of gratitude challenges that stereotype. Those who trace behind everything beautiful, good, satisfying, or delightful something more than chance evolutionary fallout – the bounty and kindness of a personal power – have this advantage in the happiness stakes: they have someone to be grateful to.
Either way, if you discount the turkey and stuffing, the sweet potato with marshmallows, the pumpkin pie, and all the rest of it, it turns out Thanksgiving may actually be good for our psychological, emotional, and physical health. Out of a flood of American exports to our shores – from Halloween to HBO – maybe this is the one to embrace – and be thankful for.
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.
This article first appeared at The Drum.