Whenever I speak about gratitude, I usually get eye rolls. And I do get it. The world is now replete with self-help books expressing its spiritual benefits. It is impossible to get through afternoon talk shows without a sappy, Oprah-anointed guru psychobabbling at us to be better individuals and recognize the importance of being grateful. Then add to that a shared YouTube video showing someone expressing thankfulness sprinkled by a chiffonade of attached Facebook memes dripping with gratitude epithets, and you have a really hard-to-swallow saccharine-dripping torte that would challenge Pollyanna Whittier at the height of her powers. I will squeal with delight if I can be the first to leave that cake out in the rain. Like I said, I really do get it.
In practice though, I actually make the effort to spend time being grateful. With so many challenges in the world and with all of us facing personal and local difficulties, the feeling of gratitude can be hard to summon. It can be elusive and, even when we’re able to beckon it forward, there is often a sense of guardedness. And for some of us, deadpan cynicism and sarcasm have become so second nature that they overwhelm our ability to reflect on the moment.
It’s as if we are perfectly fine with cynicism, grief, frustration, and anger; but when we get to gratitude, there’s a discomfort. I can only suppose we like to believe that those tough attitudes and emotions harden us for the better. While the soft emotions seem to be socially scripted as expressions of weakness. It really begs the question why we choose to deride feeling warm and fuzzy. But, there once again is the rub. As a scientist, I’ve had to come to grips with a couple of irritating facts: cynical beliefs aren’t so good for me and being grateful has lots of benefits
Cynical beliefs have been studied for some time in different disciplines with the central question being their consequences on the individual. To be clear, this is not skepticism or realism. Rather it is a worldview that others are basically functioning deceptively and are fundamentally untrustworthy while directing their efforts to their own self-interest. It is of course a longstanding philosophical argument about human nature. But psychologists don’t focus on the philosophical. They focus on the empirical consequences on behavior, and, in this case, the measurable effects of cynicism on individual functioning.
With that question in mind, both correlational and experimental studies have led to some challenging findings. Those individuals who approach the world with fundamentally cynical beliefs report a non-trivial set of outcomes including increased mortality (Everson, et al. 1997), dementia, (Neuvonen et al. 2014), and obesity (Bunde & Suls, 2006). Such beliefs also affect work success and overall satisfaction (Leung, 2010).
One recent study by Stavrova & Ehlebracht (2015) tracked several thousand Americans who were stratified based on their cynical belief. What they found was that the more cynical an individual was, the lower the income of that individual over several years. To be clear, not all these studies demonstrated causation between cynicism and a negative outcome. But they do point in a direction suggesting that cynical outlooks are really hazardous to our well-being. The implication, of course, is that cynicism should be moderated. But how?
The answer to that question lies with gratitude. Empirical research on gratitude has shown that it can not only overcome cynical belief but also strengthen us in many ways. Roman Statesman Cicero first noted that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” And like a parent, it knows how and when to fortify us. It acts as a bulwark against depression, anxiety, cynicism and envy by promoting feelings of well-being and happiness (McCullogh, et al., 2002).
Developing a sense of gratitude has positive effects on sleep patterns and results in increased feelings of serenity. This was demonstrated not merely through self-reports but also through observable changes in the brain visible through neuroimaging (Emmons & McNamara, 2006). And gratitude speeds the building of relationships while nurturing them to deepen our support and understanding of one another (Williams & Barlett, 2015). This is an amazing mix of benefits.
Additionally, gratitude produces effects that have cascading positive outcomes. Grateful people exercise more often and report less physical pain. It also improves self-esteem and increases our resilience in difficult emotional and physical situations. Gratitude even helps us with body-image issues (Emmons, 2008). All of these improve our functioning and our ability to accept our selves and others.
And all of this occurs without ever answering the central question about gratitude: Grateful to whom?
Research suggests that the answer to that question is actually irrelevant in order to receive the benefits of gratitude. There are many ways to show gratitude, and there are many permutations to feeling grateful. But the practice of gratitude does not require a target or a benefactor. There is space for the atheist and the believer. No belief or patron is required. We only need us. Gomez was grateful for Morticia without ever having to wonder much else.
The power of gratitude is that it develops the spiritual strength to recognize the moment and the privilege of experiencing it. Our ability to feel grateful involves us in the here and now, and helps us acknowledge the blessings that come from our connections to one another. That also extends to our connections to other Beings, Spirits and Nature. But gratitude does exist as a powerful human gift in its own right and bluntly one that we so often overlook or, ironically, take for granted.
In the spiritual space, I often feel that gratitude has been appropriated as a virtue exclusive to the Abrahamic religions. I feel our Christian colleagues, for example, seem more comfortable with acknowledging and expressing gratitude. So too in Islam and Judaism, gratitude is at the forefront of worship. While some may not personally internalize their gratefulness, they cannot escape being reminded that it is a virtue, important in practice and central to worship.
Likewise, Hinduism also embraces the centrality of gratitude. One of my best friends growing up was Hindu and his mother reminded us at every festival about the significance of gratitude to the Gods and each other. It is a dharma that is both human and divine. Gratitude was a daily practice and a sensibility to be developed, which ultimately protected us from ourselves.
But, it is easy to forget that we all have our own magic at play here as well. We each have our own reverence and relationship with nature, and our own spirit to harness. Each of us can reclaim gratitude as an asset of our own. The seeds of that strength have already been sown.
For some of us, this time of the year is the fulfillment of our trust in Nature. It is the time when our conviction in the order of the seasons brings forth a harvest that has been ongoing since Lughnasadh and is completed in Samhain. Yet, this time of year is often a moment forgotten because of the many demands on our time and the many events heralded by the first day of autumn.
While fall gets a lot of attention, I personally believe that Mabon really gets the short end of the calendar stick. The autumnal equinox closes out summer and with it the end of vacations and the timelessness that goes with the long days. The remnants of summer slowly shut down from crab shacks to tourist traps. It then turns from sad to hectic quickly. For some of us, the school year begins; for others we prepare for colder weather. From ballet to soccer to football, autumn revs up into full swing quickly filling up our schedules. Some of us, move right into Samhain with decorations, party planning and organizing rituals and events.
My Facebook feed is currently a testament to the rise in posts on Halloween decorations and ritual activity. All the summer white space on my calendar is now a daily rainbow of activities punctuated by “to do” pointers littered across my free time. We become busy again. And with all that, we become unavailable to ourselves.
Just this week, I received a lovely reminder of that point. Just as I finished the first draft of this column, gravity decided to teach me a lesson in gratitude. What started as a tingling on the top of my left foot after an evening run became excruciating pain that had me wrestling with the floor until rescue services arrived. The check-in at the emergency room was not quick enough.
Let me publicly state here that I am apparently an exceptionally unpleasant person when I’m in severe pain. I become unsparingly sarcastic, willful and quite adept at being insufferable. Although my pain kept getting worse, my husband stuck it out with me through the ordeal. When the physician asked about medical history my husband said “insanity runs in the family but you’d never guess it.” With one sentence and a smile, he cut through all the rancor. I calmed down; the pain went down and I even refused Dilaudid. The treatment was made more effective by being grateful my husband was there.
We can be grateful for our medicine and magic, and we can be grateful for the reminders of basic things like health and even the ability to pay for a hospital visit. The counting of what we are grateful for really begins with our relationships and, through both, we produce those powerful effects on which science reports.
Back to Mabon, this season is a reminder of the promises of gratitude. We sow and harvest both in nature and our relationships. And it really is our holiday. It doesn’t co-mingle with others like Christmas or Easter or even All Saint’s Day. The closest neighbors might be Rosh HaShanah and EId-al-Edha, but with a different meaning. In the Wheel of the Year, Mabon is a time of rest and reflection. It is a day uniquely ours.
As the days grow shorter, we celebrate our accomplishments and are offered a gift to simply be grateful for being present. Mabon invites us to have a nice long chat with ourselves. Mabon invites us to share the harvest and to reflect on how our cynical selves build within us temples to materialism and self-doubt. Mabon invites us to have an optimistic and appreciative conversation that we often reserve for others and rarely reserve for ourselves. It is moment to reframe the many hostilities directed toward us into opportunities for change. Transforming emotional energy is Pagan strength; and gratitude can be a powerful catalyst.
Nature is teaching us that this is a moment of gratitude as well. The harvest is a promise fulfilled; one that began at planting. And while it is a promise kept, there were never any guarantees. There was a lot of hard work. There were moments of doubt. There were torrents of rain and wind as well as drought. And yet the fruits are here. They range from the apples of the fields to the smiles of those we love. We can rejoice in a moment of abundance in both the land and in our relationships. And we can be grateful for them. It is our Thanksgiving.
Bunde, J. & Suls, J. (2006). A quantitative analysis of the relationship between Cook-Medley Hostility Scale and traditional coronary artery disease risk factors. Health Psychology, 25, 493-500.
Emmons, R.A . (2008). Gratitude. The science and spirit of thankfulness. In D. Goleman et al. Measuring the immeasurable. The scientific case for spirituality. (pp. 121-133). Boulder: Co: Sounds True.
Everson, et al. (1997). Hostility and increased risk of mortality and acute myocardial infarction: The mediating role of behavioral risk factors. American Journal of Epidemiology, 146, 142-152.
McCullogh, M.E., Emmons, R.S. & Tsang, J.A. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.
Neuvonen et al. (2014). Leate-life cynical distrust,risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort. Neurology, 82, DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000528
Stavrova, O. & Ehlebracht, D. (2015). Cynical beliefs about human nature and income: Longitudinal and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000050.
Williams, L.A. & Barlett, M.Y. (2015). Warm thanks: Gratitude expression facilitates social affiliation in new relationships via perceived warmth.