Thankfulness is not an emotion that comes around once a year, on the fourth Thursday in November. Thankfulness is a state of mind that should be present at all times . . . even trying times.
-- 17-year-old Long Islander who participated in a study about gratitudeSuperstorm Sandy was devastating. Everyone has a story. Some are sadder than others. Yet most people expressed gratitude.
"We made it. Count your blessings!" a sign read on someone's lawn in Island Park.
"While this stinks, it made me think about all I have to be grateful for," my neighbor said.
I totally agree.
I'm a grateful person. It takes very little for me to feel grateful, and when I feel grateful, it's intense. So when my family and I had to go without power for a week, I told my wife, "Sure, having heat would be nice. But we're still living like kings compared with 80 percent of the world."
That's my attitude. It's chosen, and I work on it daily. Not only do I benefit from being grateful, but my community benefits, too. Indeed, being grateful helps us form and sustain the most important relationships in our lives. And though there are obstacles to being grateful -- grouch-like thinking, distaste for acknowledging our dependency on others, the business of life -- it's well worth the effort, with scientifically proven results.
For example, grateful people, compared with their less grateful counterparts, tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives, less envious and materialistic, in higher quality relationships, in better physical and mental health, more prosocial and generous, and more resilient.
Gratitude, therefore, seems good for us. But it's that last benefit -- resilience -- that I focus on here.
The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave psychologists a rare opportunity to study factors that may protect people from the physical and emotional consequences caused by disaster. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading scholar in the study of human strengths and virtues, and her colleagues had a group of people they were following before 9/11, and they continued to follow them afterward -- assessing their frequency of positive and negative emotions. They found that of the 20 emotions assessed, gratitude was the second most experienced, after compassion. The people with at least moderate amounts of these positive emotions -- gratitude and others -- were less likely to experience depression after the terrorist attacks.
Further, an archival study of newspaper accounts about what children were thankful for before and after 9/11 found that themes of gratitude for basic human needs -- family, friends and teachers -- increased after 9/11. Thus, whether you're an adult or a kid, gratitude may foster coping, adjustment and resiliency in bad times.
I'm not suggesting that people who've been hurt by superstorm Sandy should feel grateful -- that would be insulting and invalidating. Instead, I'm suggesting they try to be grateful in spite of it.
That's because gratitude isn't just a feeling, it's an attitude -- one that says, "I'll be grateful in all circumstances." Similar to following a diet and exercise plan that gives results over time if you're consistent, the same applies to becoming more grateful. It's something that you must work on daily.
Even if you're just going through the motions, expressing gratitude is a good way to influence your thinking and subsequent behaviors. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "We are what we think about all day long."
As the holidays approach and we attempt to put our lives back together again, don't leave gratitude on the Thanksgiving table. Take it with you. Share it with your loved ones. And let it make you resilient -- so that you may strengthen what you still have, and rebuild what you've lost.