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.