The positive power of counting our blessings

Masen Wary, a pre-K student, samples Thanksgiving goodies. Gratitude “magnifies the good things in a person’s life,” says UC Davis professor Robert 
A. Emmons.
Masen Wary, a pre-K student, samples Thanksgiving goodies. Gratitude “magnifies the good things in a person’s life,” says UC Davis professor Robert A. Emmons. <252>The Associated Press

The Roman philosopher Cicero called gratitude the mother of all virtues. From patriotism to friendship, he said, all that goes into a good society is rooted in thanks.

Such a simple word, thanks. So easy to say that you’d think it would get out more. But the mother of all virtues, like so many mothers, tends to be taken for granted. We check in on it once a year, maybe, at Thanksgiving. Otherwise, we don’t call, we don’t write.

We should revisit that attitude, if only out of enlightened self-interest. Over the past decade and a half, a growing body of academic research has borne Cicero out.

Corny as it may sound, all sorts of social benefits arise from the consistent counting of blessings; just ask Robert A. Emmons, the University of California, Davis, psychology professor whose work on thankfulness has spawned a burgeoning field of gratitude studies.

People who jot down five things a week for which they feel grateful report a 25 percent increase in feelings of happiness, for instance. They get 33 percent more exercise, suffer 10 percent fewer stress-related illnesses and enjoy a half-hour more sleep each night.

Teenagers with a grateful attitude are 10 times less likely to start smoking. Appreciative adults live as much as seven years longer. People thankful for favors are more likely to pass good deeds forward.

Gratitude can even pay off for impulse-prone holiday shoppers: In a study published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, people were twice as likely to defer gratification if they had first recalled, in writing, a time when they felt gratitude.

Regularly counting blessings “magnifies the good things in a person’s life,” says Emmons. That magnification in turn creates a feeling of abundance that makes us feel more connected and generous.

And that builds on itself: With enough practice, he says, gratitude for family or health or turkey with stuffing evolves into an appreciation of less self-centered gifts – the air we breathe, the water we count on, the political institutions that don’t work without our participation. The sacrifices of those who have made life so much easier for us. This, in turn, incites the desire to help make society better, to be part of the solution, to give back.

These are not grateful times. The power of fear compels us. Commerce and politics conspire to tell us that there isn’t enough, that we aren’t enough.

But those warnings aren’t the whole story. Just in the last century, 30 years have been added to the average American life span. Once-terrifying diseases like polio and smallpox have been all but conquered. Violent crime is at an all-time low. Human beings who were once punished for how they looked or who they loved have rights that are not abridged without the rest of us rising up for them.

Billions of dishwashers nationwide will get a Thanksgiving workout, thanks to the modern miracle of indoor plumbing, unavailable just a couple of generations ago to the taken-for-granted mothers in more than a third of U.S. households. Once, the average American had no idea who Cicero was because only a minority had more than an eighth-grade education.

There’s power in counting those kinds of blessings, and not just on the last Thursday in November. Let’s make the mother of all virtues into the mother of all habits. Today and every day, thank someone.