Growing up, there were two things that my parents always made us say to people. “Thank you” and “please.” In regard to the latter, it didn’t really matter how small or big the gift of service or object was, it was just something we were supposed to do. At the time, it often seemed rather forced and obligatory, and I sometimes wondered how much it even meant to the other person when they heard this cued (or forced) expression of gratitude. But now as a parent, I find myself doing the same thing, and I realize that it isn’t just because I feel like it is the polite thing to do, but also because it is important to teach my kids to be gracious people. I am not sure how well my prompts are actually accomplishing that goal, but at least I hope that it helps develop a habit of gratitude.
But, now for me, there is another reason why teaching gratitude is so important, and I daresay that I had no idea growing up this was the case. Simply put, decades of scientific research has uncovered that giving thanks is not just the right or polite thing to do, but it is also the healthy thing to do, both in the short and long-term. Amazingly, gratitude can have a positive impact on physical markers, such as decreasing blood pressure and improving immune function. It has also been shown to consistently improve our psychological health, including reducing the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and substance use. People who regularly show their appreciation to others are more likely to be happy (and no, it isn’t just because happier people give thanks more). For individuals who have experienced significant trauma in their life, such as abuse, injury, or loss of a loved one, studies have consistent found that PTSD levels are lower in those who post-trauma gratitude levels are higher, regardless of how severe the trauma was or how long it has been since it occurred. In essence, mainstream science has confirmed that being grateful is truly good for our health.
But before we can really discuss what gratitude is, though, it seems we must address what gratitude is not. Gratitude is not false positivity or the denial of negative emotions. Gratitude is not condoning atrocities and maltreatment by others, even if an outcome might be good. Being thankful also does not mean being tragically idealistic, or blind to obvious realities. True gratitude does not encourage settling, or an erosion of high standards, even if struggles highlight meaningful moments and progress that lead to unexpected, positive outcomes.
To really understand the essence of gratitude, it is important to recognize that gratitude extends much beyond a pleasing act of graciousness. As eloquently described in the article, “Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention” written by Robert Emmons and Robin Stern, gratitude is composed of two key components. One, there is an assertion of “goodness” that exists in a person’s life. Two, there is a clear understanding that at least some of this goodness lies outside the individual. For many, gratitude is not just a worldly transaction, but elemental of a transcendent link. It exemplifies a sense that we are all part of a mysterious, interconnected, interdependent network. As Emmons and Stern stated:
“True gratefulness rejoices in the other. Its ultimate goal is to reflect back the goodness that one has received by creatively seeking opportunities for giving. The motivation for doing so resides in the grateful appreciation that one has lived by the grace of others. In this sense, the spirituality of gratitude is opposed to a self-serving belief that one deserves or is entitled to the blessings that he or she enjoys.” (p. 847)
Yet as Emmons and other researchers note, not all acts of gratitude are created alike, and some are more beneficial than others. It appears that a few key points can guide us to using gratitude most effectively. One, the more details and specifics that you acknowledge and express regarding your thankfulness (e.g., noting exactly how your kids did well with their chores, which is better for reinforcement purposes anyway), the more likely you will reap the benefits of gratitude. Two, emphasizing your thankfulness for new and unexpected areas of joy and discovery can be especially fruitful. Three, taking the time to regularly (and reflectively) consider just what your life would have been like if positive events (often leading to relationships or newfound habits or interests) had not occurred can really engender long-term benefits. And finally, just regularly journaling about all the good things that do happen (small and large)—even in the midst of difficult circumstances and periods of time—can create a discipline of happiness that can last a lifetime!
So the next time you find yourself saying “thank you” or telling your kids to do the same, just remember. It’s not just the right thing to do, or the proper thing to do, it’s the healthy thing to do, too. Rarely in life are we afforded such a simple, free, easy, universal option to help others feel better while we do, too. Whether you are 2 or 90, it’s never too late to show appreciation. Your mind and body may thank you for it.