It’s been the most catastrophic year some of us can ever remember. It’s not just the pandemic, even though that’s why we’ve had to retreat to our homes and identify some odd space that would fare well on a platform we’ve never heard of before called, of all things, Zoom. I don’t want to be zoomed any more, and neither does that odd corner of my house. But we’ve also endured wildfires everywhere, extreme tornadoes, floods, hurricanes on top of hurricanes, an invasion of murder hornets and locust, a shortage of toilet paper/hand sanitizer/bleach/small turkeys. The hospitals are at capacity, doctors and nurses are worn out.
Today the coronavirus death toll in the United States reached 257,415 and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of and pray for the families that have been affected by this god awful year. Must we regurgitate the same old ‘thankfulness’ banter at a half-empty Thanksgiving table? I’m just not feeling it this year.
Of course, there are reasons to be thankful even in the Year of Our Hell 2020. It’s easy enough to recite a few things off the typical list: health, home, family, food on the table. Simply being thankful for something isn’t the same as being grateful, however, and that realization has caused a bit of soul searching of my own.
Animals as diverse as fish, birds, and vampire bats engage in “reciprocal altruism” activities— behaviors that one animal performs to help another member of their species, even at a cost to themselves, presumably because they recognize at some instinctual level that the other individual may repay the favor at a later date. Some scientists see this desire to repay generosity as an expression of gratitude, thereby turning strangers into friends and allies who are more likely to help one another.
“Gratitude has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more,” writes Robert Emmons and Cheryl Crumpler in a 2000 paper that examined the empirical research on gratitude (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). Participants who were assigned the task of a “counting blessings” practice, or “gratitude journaling” reported spending significantly more time exercising and had fewer physical complaints. The physical benefits of gratefulness are similar to the benefits of exercising, including a positive effect on the heart, brain, and reduced cellular inflammation throughout the body. But what exactly is gratitude?
Scientifically speaking, gratitude is defined as a two-step process: 1) recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome and 2) recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.
Naturally, we feel more grateful when a favor is given with benevolent intentions than when a favor is given with ulterior motives, and our brains kick into high gear to recognize the difference. Certain traits are indeed barriers to gratitude, such as envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism.
Because envy and materialism involve dwelling on what we do not have, it’s hard to be grateful and envious at the same time. Narcissistic personalities may not even notice that a gift has occurred because they believe they are entitled to the benefit in the first place.
But a grateful disposition is associated with life satisfaction, optimism, subjective well-being, positive affect, happiness, optimism, and hope. It changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit, which could help explain why gratitude encourages prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior can include everyday behaviors such as sharing food or holding the door open for a stranger; citizenship activities such as voting, volunteering, or donating to charity; and broader things such as empathy, respect, and forgiveness.
Look outward, not inward.
Robert Emmons from the 2000 paper on gratitude says people are more likely to feel grateful when they put their focus on others, rather than getting caught up in their inner narratives about how things should have gone. Empathy for others can trigger a sense of gratitude, and people who have an outward focus tend to experience stronger benefits. And according to Aseop Fables, “gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”
Maybe ‘2020’ is exactly why we should be grateful.
While gratitude and thankfulness is an important component of many religious traditions, the external sources responsible for our positive outcomes are also because of the generosity of fellow human beings.
Children are hungry, parents have lost their jobs, people are scared, more people than ever are sick. Maybe the desire to repay the generosity we’ve received, to be grateful, is exactly what we need this year.
Our world has many good humans doing good things, and I am grateful this year more than ever.