Striving to develop humble gratitude is the “second commandment” of sound character development. Cultivating healthy gratitude is not only key to good character formation but also essential to happiness. And for years now science has been bearing out the truth of this.
How Being Grateful Fosters Happiness
Taking note of the many things we have to feel thankful about can play a highly constructive role in our character development and how we treat others and how others treat us. And scientific evidence is mounting that being grateful can also help foster an overall sense of well-being and happiness. Now, feeling grateful is not always so easy to do, especially in difficult and stressful times. But it always helps to make some room in our hearts for gratitude. After all, despite the abundant messages we get daily to the contrary from so many sources in our present culture, we’re not really entitled to anything. Every breath we draw is an unearned gift.
We can nurture and cultivate feelings of gratitude. A friend of mine found herself “between jobs,” a decidedly stressful time. But while she looked work, she decided that something good would happen to her every day. It could be a call or email from a sympathetic colleague; it could be a job lead. She decided that not going to work every day could actually give her some time make a few day-trips she wouldn’t have been able to do before. In the process she became grateful for little things, and she found herself reaching out to others who were also looking for work. She even had former co-workers ask her why she wasn’t depressed. It was simply because she was too busy being grateful for the good things that continued to come her way.
Because our culture promotes such a strong sense of entitlement it’s particularly challenging to develop a healthy sense of gratitude. Attitudes of entitlement are inherently toxic not only to personal development but also to interpersonal relationships. My experience with individuals trying to solidify a positive and healthy sense of self has taught me how crucial it is to find a spot in one’s heart for the powerful medicine that gratitude brings. Feelings of entitlement inevitably lead to irresponsible actions and bitter feelings when a person feels denied satisfaction of his or her wants. But gratitude begets a sense of reverence for life and a sense of well-being when we do our part to help sustain it. It’s hard to imagine a person with genuine awe and respect for the wonders of creation callously polluting and destructively consuming. Similarly, within the realm of human relations, it’s hard to imagine a person who really values life and the well-being of all treating another human being (or even an animal) with callous or cruel indifference. Gratitude is not just a good thing to have. Rather, it is a way of valuing what we do have. And gratitude is necessary for people to be genuinely healthy and whole.
Our parents and spiritual coaches have always told us this that counting our blessings is a good idea. Recently, science has added its voice about the healthy results of being grateful. The University of California is perhaps at the forefront of gratitude research. Robert Emmons and his colleagues at both the Berkeley and UC-Davis campuses have devoted millions of dollars to the scientific study of human happiness. They’ve carefully examined the roles that altruism, forgiveness, mindfulness, and a host of other relational attributes, including gratitude, play in promoting our overall health and well-being as well as the greater good. Research findings attest to the fact that gratitude is not only a positive emotion but also is instrumental in promoting an overall sense of well-being and happiness. And there’s abundant evidence that taking note of the many things we have to feel thankful for helps mold good character. But developing this positive frame of mind is not easy. We have to train ourselves to recognize the good things that come our way and to be thankful for them. Looking for the good, helps us see it when it happens. This is the essence of what has come to be known as “positive psychology.” And the findings coming out of positive psychology research have been not only surprising but also quite provocative. Research suggests that many of us have long had things backward: instead of feeling grateful when we’re well and happy, to be well and happy, we simply need to be more grateful. And the evidence for the soundness of this perspective just seems to keep accumulating.
Some would argue that those who advocate greater gratitude simply want us to ignore the bad things that happen or to discount how difficult it is for the more disadvantaged among us to feel grateful. But gratitude research suggests we should actually keep our awareness high about the bad things that occur. Life is full of ups and downs, good and bad. Sometimes it’s only when we’ve survived a faith-shaking ordeal that we can really appreciate it when good things finally come our way. Many survivors of the Great Depression tried to teach their children that lesson. They didn’t just want them to know how bad they had it “back in the day.” Rather, they wanted their children to appreciate what they’d come to take for granted. Maybe it’s only when we fully comprehend how trying things can get that we’re able to genuinely appreciate the basics. So being grateful is not about having your head in the sand about all the bad stuff that happens, it’s about finding a space in the heart for appreciating the things you do have, even the little things.
So, how do you develop a more grateful, positive heart? Just like you do with anything else – with practice. And I’ll have more to say about practicing gratitude in the concluding article on the “second commandment” of character next week. Gratitude begets a sense of indebtedness and obligation, a sense notably lacking in the disturbed character who takes, expects, exploits, and abuses without reservation or compunction. Learning to be more grateful is the antidote for this, and it takes a lot of practice.
You can find more on the topic of gratitude in the articles The Grateful Character Feels Obliged, Gratitude: A Matter of Attitude, Gratitude is Good for You – Really!, and Evidence Mounts on the Power of Gratitude and in my book How Did We End Up Here? and upcoming book The 10 Commandments of Character.
Character Matters will again be a live broadcast this Sunday evening at 7 pm EDT (6 pm CDT) so I can take your calls. Tune in at UCY.TV and phone in at (718) 717-8296 to ask a question, share some thoughts or a story, or simply join the conversation.