Mark Davies, PhD, RPsych
My favourite holiday is Thanksgiving. I love the fall, the food, and the friends and family that are all associated with Thanksgiving. Every year at our Thanksgiving table we share with each other the things we are most thankful for.
My favourite holiday is Thanksgiving. I love the fall, the food, and the friends and family that are all associated with Thanksgiving. Every year at our Thanksgiving table we share with each other the things we are most thankful for. Then we pause, hold hands, bow our heads, and give thanks.
This simple but profound ritual always results in a deep sense of peace and well-being. Research shows that I am not alone in this experience. Having a deep sense of gratitude is a critically important factor in maintaining positive emotional health.
One of the premier psychologists of our day is Martin Seligman. Having first gained prominence in researching depression, Seligman soon began to look at factors that contribute to positive emotional health. Seligman's work led to one of the fastest growing areas of psychological research: "positive psychology." Research has shown that individuals who have a high level of life satisfaction (happiness) are less likely to have psychological or social problems, less likely to feel stressed, and more likely to enjoy robust physical health.
Seligman and his colleagues have identified 24 key factors associated with individuals who report high levels of life satisfaction. The most recent research suggests that out of these 24, five are particularly important: optimism, zest for life, curiosity, the ability to love and be loved, and gratitude. The most important factor associated with happiness seems to be gratitude.
I was personally impacted by this research during a recent seminar in which Dr. Ed Diener of the University of Chicago presented recent findings of the positive psychology research to a group of psychologists. During the seminar, Diener asked us to rate our level of happiness on a scale of one to 10 (at the end of a long, hard week, mine was six). Then we were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had made a real difference in our lives. We were to tell that person in concrete and specific terms how we felt they had helped us. Then, at the earliest possible convenience, we were to visit that person and read them the letter.
I wrote mine to a friend who I happened to be visiting that night. Over dinner I shared my letter of gratitude with him. We both joked that the tears in our eyes were from the onions in the salad. I then made a mental note of my level of happiness: it was a whopping 9.5! I quickly realized that this research was saying something profoundly important about the way I live.
Always Something Newer
Some estimates suggest that the average urban dweller is bombarded by more than 1,500 advertisements each day, most of them making us feel dissatisfied with what we have. They suggest that we cannot possibly be happy unless we have the advertised product. I, like many, have fallen victim to this consumer mentality.
Recently I purchased a new car, but within a couple of months a rival automaker had come out with a "newer," "better" model. As I listened to the advertisements, I slowly began to find fault with the new car that only a few short months ago I had been delighted with. I was dissatisfied and unhappy.
In the midst of this psychological and spiritual junk, gratitude is like a cleansing agent for the soul. It moves us away from what we don't have, to what we do have. The glass stops being half empty and is now half full. Gratitude takes the focus away from self and personal needs. Instead we look at what we have been given; we celebrate the goodness of others, God, and life itself! The word "gratitude" comes from the Latin word gracia, which means grace. Rather than living a life filled with stress, anxiety, and striving, gratitude gently teaches us the truth that all life is a gift to be received and enjoyed.
Just as we have learned to be dissatisfied with what we have, so we can learn to become grateful. You, too, can do a "gratitude visit." Or you can do something as simple as regularly sharing with your family one thing that you are grateful for over the course of the day. We do this at dinnertime in our family and are living with a greater sense of grace and satisfaction in our lives.
Everyday for the next month, focus on having an attitude of gratitude. You will find that in giving thanks, you will get so much more back.