Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful)

Looking ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday, a friend expressed some trepidation. This year, several guests at a usually festive annual party would be newly unemployed. My friend shook his head. “It’s going to be strange this year.”

As the world economy stumbles on, wreaking chaos in countless lives, it strikes me that this experience is likely to be widely shared–and that the spirit of gratitude may well prove more elusive than in boom years past. Researchers would seem to agree.

“It is relatively easy to feel grateful when good things are happening and life is going the way we want it to,” observes University of California-Davis Professor Robert A. Emmons, whose book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier devotes an entire chapter to gratitude in trying times. “A much greater challenge is to be grateful when things are not going so well, and are not going the way we think they should.”

Speaking from personal experience, a prolonged job hunt can be a serious hit to the gratitude balance sheet, however much you try to focus on the positive. In part, that’s because evolution designed us to remember danger more than pleasure. (That’s how our ancestors kept from getting eaten.)  Research psychologists call this our “negativity bias.”

Moreover, gratitude may always come harder to some of us than others, due to our (genetically determined) temperaments. When I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor, I somehow wasn’t shocked to find that I scored high on the personality dimension associated with high sensitivity to negative stimuli—a trait of some use in the evolutionary sweepstakes but less well adapted to my current purposes as a latté-drinking inhabitant of a New England college town. “What your ancestors needed to survive is not what you need to have a pleasant life,” researcher Daniel Nettle helpfully explains in his book Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are.

Now it probably won’t come as a huge surprise that gratitude correlates with happiness. Grateful people cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, have more satisfying relationships, are more optimistic, and all in all, are happier with their lives than their less grateful peers. They are also: less anxious, less envious, less materialistic, and less lonely.  In sum, “happiness is facilitated when we . . . ‘want what we have,’” Emmons concludes.

All well in good if you feel grateful, but what if you just . . . don’t?  What if you really don’t want what you have, thanks all the same? And what if you have some pretty good reasons for wanting life to be different?

Happily, research suggests that gratitude can be cultivated—even by those of us for whom it doesn’t come naturally. (Emmons actually puts himself in this category, noting that he spends far more time thinking about gratitude research than practicing the quality he studies.)

The most common mistake? Assuming that gratitude should spring up effortlessly. Not so, says Emmons.  For most of us, developing gratitude requires ongoing discipline.  We have to learn to act first, regardless of how we feel. “While gratitude is pleasant, it is not easy,” Emmons writes. “We have to work at it. It must be consciously cultivated.”

For those who want to test his theories, Emmons offers ten suggested practices for cultivating gratitude. They include keeping a daily gratitude journal, remembering the hardest times in your life and how  far you’ve come (maybe not so helpful if those times are now), and making a point of expressing gratitude.

While the idea of “counting your blessings” is an ancient one, it was Emmons and his colleagues who gave the idea its scholarly bona fides. In one 10-week study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three weekly reporting groups. One group was asked to report back on five things they were grateful for, the second to describe five hassles, and the third simply to report five things that affected them.

The result: At the end of the study, the gratitude group was not only a full 25% happier than other participants but also reported fewer health concerns and spent more time exercising. (Later research showed that daily practice was even more effective.)

Sounds good, but will it work for you?

Here’s one way to find out. Go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness website and complete both the General Happiness and Satisfaction with Life tests. Then, every night for the next two weeks spend five minutes listing up to five things from the past 24 hours for which you feel grateful. At the end of the two weeks, take the tests again. If you’re happier than before: Continue. (This experiment is suggested by Penn Professor Martin Seligman—often referred to as the grandfather of positive psychology—for those who score in the lower half of either the Life Satisfaction test or Emmons’ gratitude survey, which is also available on the website.)

While I’ve kept gratitude journals before, I’ve never stuck with them for all that long, but thanks to my recent reading, I’m giving it another shot.  In fact, I’ll start now: First of all, I’m really grateful to you—to everyone who’s read and commented on this blog in the past ten days. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a project as much, and I couldn’t (wouldn’t) do it if it no one were reading it. So: thank you, thank, you! And have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

P.S. For anyone inclined to join me in keeping a gratitude journal, here’s a helpful list of tips I came across while procrastinating researching this post.