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Science Finds Benefit to "Giving Thanks" by Tony Isaacs ..... Ask Tony Isaacs: Featuring Luella May

Date:   11/19/2009 7:59:05 PM ( 10 years ago ago)
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As reported at The Best Years in Life Anti-Aging & Longevity

Science Discovers the Secret to Happiness
Robert A. Emmons, PhD
University of California, Davis

S urprise: Research suggests that becoming more grateful could make each of us 25% happier -- and that being happy is the key to a longer, more successful life.

Our lives do not just seem better when we are happy -- they actually become better, according to a 2005 analysis of hundreds of psychological studies. Happy people tend to have longer, more loving marriages... are healthier... live an average of seven to nine years longer than chronically unhappy people... and have more successful careers. According to one study, happy college graduates had annual salaries $25,000 higher than unhappy graduates 16 years after graduation.

While an endless procession of self-help gurus have claimed to know the path to happiness, psychological studies generally have failed to confirm that proposed happiness strategies actually work.

One notable exception: Research conducted in the past decade appears to indicate that we can become happier by feeling more gratitude.

Bottom Line/Retirement asked psychology professor Robert A. Emmons, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, for more information...

What is "gratitude" to a psychologist?
In simple terms, gratitude is our affirmation of a benefit that we have received and our recognition that this benefit has come to us from outside of ourselves.

You say that becoming more grateful will make us happier. How do we know that it isn’t the other way around -- happiness creates gratitude?
Our research suggests that increases in happiness do not lead to increases in gratitude, but that increases in gratitude do in fact increase happiness. We designed a study to test this. Participants were divided into two groups, each of which were initially equally happy. Members of one of these groups were asked to write in a journal the things that they were grateful for, which made them more conscious of and grateful for the good fortune that came their way. At the end of the study, the journal-keeping group was 25% happier than members of the group that did not keep gratitude journals.

Why does feeling gratitude make us happier?
Primarily, I believe, it is because gratitude increases our sense of connection to other people. Having strong relationships is the single best predictor of happiness, and our relationships become stronger when we acknowledge the support we receive from those around us. Acknowledging the support we receive from others provides us with confirmation that we have value in other people’s eyes. Gratitude also buffers us from envy, resentment and regret, emotions that inhibit happiness.

Why do people often have trouble being grateful for what they have?
Lots of reasons. Most of us are fortunate to have pretty good lives, so our default reaction might be to take the benefits that come our way for granted. Consumerism and other cultural pressures can foster a sense that we deserve even more than we have. Our desire to see ourselves as self-sufficient makes it difficult to admit that someone else has helped us. And admitting gratitude can create uncomfortable feelings of indebtedness.

Can we consciously choose to become more grateful and thus happier?
Yes, I do believe it is a choice. Chronically unhappy people do not greatly differ from happy people in terms of their life circumstances -- they just approach life with a different set of attitudes. Unhappy people tend to see themselves as victims of their past, and feel entitled or exaggeratedly deserving when good fortune comes their way. Happy people are thankful that good things happen to them -- even though their lives might be no better than those of the unhappy people next door. We cannot always alter the events of our lives, but we can alter our attitudes.

What, specifically, can we do to become more grateful?
Make an effort to speak about your life using words of gratitude even if you do not feel very grateful. Though it seems counter­intuitive, we can become more grateful by forcing ourselves to feign gratefulness that we do not initially feel. Speak in terms of gifts and givers, not regrets and setbacks. Refer to yourself as blessed or fortunate, not deserving or lacking. Say that you live in abundance, not in need. For example, say "I feel so grateful when I can sleep through the night," rather than "Most nights I wake up every few hours."

Keeping a gratitude journal also seems to encourage gratefulness. Every day or every week, write down five or more things for which you are grateful. Be specific -- "I’m grateful for my spouse" is little more than a cliché, but "I’m grateful that my spouse picked up my dry cleaning this afternoon" reminds us that we are grateful to our partner today for a particular reason. Try not to repeat entries -- gratitude journals are most effective when we think of new items each day.

Incidentally, if you are struggling to get to sleep at night, don’t count sheep, count your blessings. Grateful people sleep better and longer than ungrateful people, and wake feeling more refreshed.

What is the secret to being grateful in the face of struggle or tragedy?
The secret is not to wait until tragedy strikes. Become more grateful while your life is running smoothly, so that gratitude becomes an ingrained part of your "psychological immune system." That will make it easier to view difficulties as temporary and surmountable setbacks, or even as opportunities in disguise.

A grateful person mourns the passing of a close friend, but he/she also feels lucky to have known the friend as long as he did, and is glad that he has so many other friends remaining.

Many prayers are expressions of gratitude. So, do religious people have an advantage when it comes to actually feeling gratitude and being happy?
Yes, to some degree. One of the foundations of virtually every religion is that people should give thanks to God and to each other. Religious texts and religious teachings typically provide models of how to be grateful, such as prayers of gratitude and rituals of giving thanks. Spirituality appears to be particularly helpful for maintaining a grateful outlook in the face of suffering and adversity.

Bottom Line/Retirement interviewed Robert A. Emmons, PhD, professor of psychology, University of California, Davis. A leading scholar of positive psychology, he is author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin).



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