Yesterday AU posted an interview with me about gratitude. When I did the interview I did not realize it would be posted as an interview, and so my answers weren’t framed in a way that fit the medium. Today I am going to tackle the questions again. If you’d like to see the original, here it is: http://www.american.edu/media/news/20131125_AU-Psychology-Professor-Examines-Gratitude.cfm
1) What’s the latest research on gratitude?
First, in the last decade there have been more and more studies suggesting that doing gratitude exercises is useful for well-being. In one, for instance, writing every day about three good things from that day led to more happiness six months later than did various other exercises. In another expressing (over three weeks) gratitude toward a college friend strengthened the friendship. The effects are not perfectly consistent. Sometimes the exercises don’t work. The control groups are not always the best (showing that people are happier thinking of gratitude-inducing events than hassles is not that impressive!) Sometimes it’s not clear if the reason the exercises are having their effects is due to gratitude. Sometimes gratitude exercises can become so routine that we hardly notice them and they lose their efficacy, so it’s not clear what the best dosage of gratitude exercise is. Still, on the whole, growing research suggests that practicing gratitude is good for you.
One of the new pieces of work coming form my lab (inspired by my clinical psychology doctoral student Kate Stewart) is whether gratitude exercises help people find meaning and if that’s how they build well-being. So many people just tune out from their days, which then become meaningless, dull, fraught, listless, empty. I love the early quote from the movie American Beauty: “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.” [SPOILER ALERT] And that movie ends with “Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.” Does the practice of gratitude help us take days that slide by and change them to ones imbued with meaning? We just presented some of this work in Nashville at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
Another interest in my lab is whether when people say they are grateful they mean different things, sometimes focused on being grateful to people and sometimes on being grateful for things. If so, what are the functions of these two different sorts of gratitude. I’ve a single study draft paper written to which I want to add results from a second study I ran some time ago. Hopefully that will be written sometime in early spring and I can sometime next year talk about it more.
There’s a lot more going on in gratitude these days. Within the next couple months the book Handbook of Positive Emotions, edited by friends Leslie Kirby, Lani Shiota, and Michele Tugade will be out. In it you will find my chapter (with friend and former student Courtney Forbes) on gratitude and you can read more. It will be expensive. Check your local university library!
2) Do people feel more gratitude during Thanksgiving?
I don’t know the answer as I don’t know any research on the topic. A good way to think about the answer, though, is to think of what leads to gratitude. We feel grateful when we experience something good that is not of our own making. To the extent, then, that Thanksgiving leads people to focus on the good in their lives that they have not caused they should feel more grateful. To the extent that they focus on other matters (fights with family, loneliness, the struggles on Thanksgiving Day of their fantasy football teams) they likely will not feel so grateful. Thanksgiving Day pulls our attention in so many different directions and the direction affects whether we are grateful!
3) Are Americans generally ungrateful? Despite tough economic times, this is a comparatively wealthy nation. Yet people seem frustrated.
I don’t know how to measure the general gratitude of the nation. You’d need a good random sample. You’d need some sort of standard by which to gauge how much gratitude is “ungrateful.” But it’s clear that we are wealthy, despite the tough times, and it is clear that many people are frustrated. Some are frustrated because of real poverty, even in this wealthy nation. Others are frustrated because of the “hedonic treadmill,” that is, the rising expectations as to what is needed to be happy. As people grow wealthier they adapt to that new wealth. That which gave pleasure before doesn’t do so much any more. In graduate school I had little money and the days when I would splurge on pizza from the little place down the street were days of luxury. Now it (too often) takes more expensive food to get my attention. And so food doesn’t really make me happier than it did. Jean Twenge has presented some great data suggesting that narcissism, that is, making ourselves the center, has, for decades, been on the rise in the US. I wonder whether some of the dissatisfaction Americans experience is a consequence of that. There’s some lovely work coming out on the joys of giving (see, for instance, work by Elizabeth Dunn from British Columbia). If we are the center isn’t the world supposed to work by giving to us rather than having us give to others? I wonder whether gratitude can counteract narcissism. We experience gratitude when we realize that we did not cause the good things we experience, which points toward something important that is beyond us. And perhaps it points us toward response to that undeserved goodness, giving back, giving forward. If we’re not focused on our own needs, what does that do to frustration? These are questions I want to answer in the long run and form much of the basis for my interest in gratitude.
4) Is gratitude just a temporary emotion for most people?
Temporary covers a lot of ground! Someday the sun will cool off–it’s temporary! But the question seems to get at whether we can increase the gratitude we experience. There’s not a lot of work here. I’d love to see experiments conducted over several years to follow the consequences of different gratitude exercises.
But I think gratitude can be expanded. Think back to what leads to gratitude–attention to good things that we have not caused. There’s a great deal of work that indicates that attention can be trained. (Hey, it wasn’t chance that led you to the point where you can attend to this long enough to read it!) And so attention can likely be trained to the good (even as we acknowledge so many things in our lives that are anything but good) and to things we didn’t cause (even as there are also goods that we bring into the world). And if we attend in that way we will be more grateful. Perhaps then we will find ourselves more filled than we had imagined, and more connected to that wide world that is outside of ourselves.
So that’s a more systematic answer to the four questions that showed up in the AU interview. If you would like to know more about gratitude ship me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or take some time to reflect on the good you’ve experienced. Think about the gifts of today. Think about the gifts of now. And enjoy Thanksgiving not just for the delicious food and the good company and the football but the sense of gratitude that arises from it all. Safe travels.