Psychological research reveals that our happiness level is remarkably stable over the course of our lives. Some of us are generally more cheerful and others more melancholy. Situations, however, can temporarily change our set happiness levels. For example, falling in love increases our happiness and the ending of a relationship lowers it. But within three to six months, our happiness level returns to its norm. There is however, a way to make our lives happier on a more permanent basis and thanksgiving might just be the key.
In his book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Robert Emmons, PhD, shared his research in this area. He asked a group of university students to write down five things for which they were grateful each week for ten weeks. A second group was asked to write down five hassles from the week and a third group simply listed five events that had occurred in the last week, focusing neither on the positive or negative aspects. At the end of the study, only the students in the gratitude group reported being happier. In addition, these students were more optimistic about the future, and felt better about their lives in general.
A criticism of the study was that it was carried out with undergraduate college students. What about people with serious, chronic health problems? So, Dr. Emmons asked adults with neuromuscular disorders to keep a daily gratitude journal. A control group simply wrote about their daily experiences. At the conclusion of the study, those in the gratitude group were happier with their lives, experienced less pain, were more optimistic, and slept better.
In further studies, Dr. Emmons discovered that those who regularly engaged in religious activities such as prayer and reading spiritual books were even more likely to be grateful and happy. Grateful people, he discovered, are also more likely to acknowledge and feel the interconnectedness of all life. Congruous with this research, Benedictine monk and Zen practitioner, David Steindl Rast, has an interactive website, Grateful Living (gratefulness.org), that can help cultivate gratitude, and in doing so, make the world a happier place. His website even offers the opportunity of lighting a virtual gratitude candle. Simply click on the candlewick and it will burn for twenty-four hours and even get smaller as it burns. This provides a gratefulness ritual that can be performed virtually any time of day. Most of the rituals in which we participate: birthday parties, weddings, and even funerals, have something to do with gratefulness. The great ritual of the Christian Church, the Eucharist, literally means “gratitude” in Greek. Medieval theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice.” The writer G. K. Chesterton understood this. He wrote, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, grace before the play, grace before I open a book, grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink.”
Between now and Christmas, Wendy and I will watch, as we do every year, the 1954 movie White Christmas. Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney will sing: “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings.” We can count our blessings, as Dr. Emmons suggests, by writing down what we are grateful for each day in a journal, or why not start a Thanksgiving Jar. Each day, put a little note in the jar indicating something for which you are grateful. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, empty the jar and read all the blessings that emerged in your life. If you begin one of these gratitude practices, you will be a happier person on Thanksgiving and your overall level of happiness will increase.
I close with a prayer from Fr. Edward Hayes. “Grant me daily the grace of gratitude, to be thankful for all my gifts, and that I might lead a joyful, simple life.”
Amen and Happy Thanksgiving.
Rev. Dr. Yanchy Lacska, is an Orthodox Catholic priest, an interfaith minister and a Jungian oriented pastoral counselor. He has been a hospital chaplain, a college professor, psychotherapist, and has taught qigong for 20 years.