November 1st, 2010

Giving thanks enhances quality of life, strengthens connections

Bing Crosby was on to something when he sang “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” to Rosemary Clooney in the movie “White Christmas.” Clinical studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, indicate that feelings of gratitude can result in more than a good night’s sleep.

Douglas C. Kimmel, Ph.D., who has a private practice in Hancock, Maine, says, “From a general aspect, awareness of the good things in life can help you focus on gratitude,” he says. “We’ve been taught all our lives to focus on what went wrong, to work harder, get better grades. It’s common to go through life thinking about what you don’t have. Our society fosters this competitive attitude. [Gratitude] changes your perception from what one does not have to what you do have.”

Amy L. Harris, Psy.D., a private practitioner in Waterbury, Vermont, equates gratitude to mindfulness and points out that people who are cognitively flexible are more likely to be relaxed and able to notice the world around them. “People with mood disorders replay things in the past and have fears of the future instead of rooting down in the present moment. Those things make you stuck,” she says.

While being grateful is essential to physical and mental health, Harris emphasizes that always feeling gratitude is not healthy or realistic. Everyday situations are sometimes less than optimal and can be downright depressing. For instance, people who are long-term residents in hospitals or other institutions can “get lost in despair” she notes and urges them to identify something to look forward to. “Notice things to be present for and use it as an anchor, like a compass to guide you where you need to go.”

For those who are inherently negative, helping them find even a small measure of gratitude is challenging, according to Harris, but any lifestyle change – no matter how small – can lead to larger changes. “Culturally, we live in a land of wanting more and more,” she says. “We need to practice gratitude as a counterbalance to that.”

Colleen Delaney, Ph.D., RN, AHN-BC, associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing, firmly believes there is a correlation between spirituality and gratitude. She conducted a qualitative, eco-spiritual study in which subjects meditated outside or near a window and recorded their thoughts in a journal. “Focusing on nature is another way of expressing gratitude,” she says, explaining that this practice roots us in the present. “We operate too much in the past and future.”

Subjects with cardiovascular disease participated in another, qualitative study and listened to a CD titled “Blessings,” a multi-sensory experience that enhances appreciation and connection to self, others, the environment and a higher power. According to Delaney, in addition to awareness and gratitude, subjects reported reduced anxiety and lower blood pressure.

On a more secular level, David DeSteno, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, conducted a National Science Foundation-funded study, and found a link between gratitude and increased financial generosity. In the two-part trial, subjects completed a lengthy, onerous computer task. Before their scores could be recorded, the computers “crashed,” which meant the subjects would have to repeat the chore. An individual connected to the study “fixed” the computers, earning a huge round of thank-yous. “Ninety-five percent of the subjects were incredibly grateful,” says DeSteno.

Exactly how grateful subjects were became evident during the second part of the trial. In a token exchange exercise, the subjects who had been helped gave generously to others. “The important part is that these subjects were not playing with the person who helped them. They were playing with someone they didn’t know, so there was no sense of owing or reciprocity,” says DeSteno. “How much you give is directly predicted by the amount of gratitude you feel.”

“The value of the experiment is that [the actions] are driven by an emotional response. They are not socially driven,” says DeSteno. “Giving without being helped first dramatically increases the level of cooperation in the whole population. Gratitude is a mechanism for ‘upstream reciprocity.’ Someone helped the subject and now he is acting more communally generous.”

DeSteno cites several societal benefits from an increase in gratitude. “I suggest that allowing yourself to experience gratitude or other positive socially-oriented emotions can cement social bonds.” He adds that being grateful can increase strength in social networks and result in better physical and mental outcomes. “It can be a reminder to treat others fairly, especially with economic and social exchange. You can build stronger relationships.”

According to Kirke Olson, Psy.D., a school consultant and private practitioner in Concord, New Hampshire, focusing on the “now” can induce a strong sense of gratitude. “People tend to be looking forward all the time. It’s good to stop and look back, see where you’ve been and see the difference in growth and improvement,” he says. “When you are reaching for a goal and are 80 percent there, people have a tendency to look at the 20 percent to go. Stop and think about how far you’ve come.”

In his work with school children, Olson has witnessed first-hand positive physical side effects of being grateful – much like those reported in Delaney’s study – including reduced stress levels and lower blood pressures.

Olson advocates a two-pronged approach to therapy. “Psychologists are good at reducing the negative. Now we need to use techniques for finding gratitude. As a profession for 100 years we have assumed if you are not depressed, you are happy. That is not necessarily so,” he says. “Incorporating an exercise on gratitude in any psychotherapy could be useful.”

Olson says, “The nice thing is it’s hard to see where the downside might be. If research around gratitude is showing how great it is, you can’t be worried that it would have negative effects.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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