Gratitude as an attitude

Gratitude as an attitude is making news. Researchers are reporting that the words “thank you” might be the secret to good health and a long life. With holiday stress upon us, a positive attitude is a relationship challenge. However, the Journal of Happiness Studies makes a convincing argument for gratitude.

Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, told me: “Gratitude is an attitude, not a feeling that can be easily willed.” Even if you are not satisfied with your life as it is today, he pointed out, “if you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. It is like improving your posture and, as a result, becoming more energetic and self-confident.”

Emmons added: “Attitude change often follows behavior change. By living the gratitude that we do not necessarily feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live.”

Smiling, saying “thank you,” sending thank-you notes and making gratitude visits are attitude boosters.

Grateful people are found to be generally happier, with more social connections and fewer bouts of depression, which afflicts 20.9 million American adults. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population 18 and older has a mood disorder in a given year.

Gratitude benefits can be peace of mind or fewer illnesses, and even a decrease in alcoholism. There are 17.6 million in this country who abuse alcohol — about one in every 12 adults — according to the National Institutes of Health.

Children and adults benefit from gratitude. Jeffrey J. Froh, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., said his findings indicate that grateful children do better in school, have fewer headaches and stomachaches, score better on tests and might be more community-minded.

Froh is practicing what he preaches with his own 4-year-old son, whom he asks each night: “What was your favorite part of school today?” Also, he is helping him be more appreciative of nature, and related this vignette: “We were outside the other day, and out of the blue my son said, ‘Look at how red those leaves are. Aren’t they beautiful?’”

“A lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or things our grandmothers told us,” Froh said, “but we now have scientific evidence to prove them.”

I asked Emmons if the purpose of his work was to convince others that gratitude can be measured from a scientific perspective, not just a religious one.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Science means that we apply scientific tools of observation and measurement to the examination of — in this case — the feelings, perceptions and expressions of gratitude. And we examine the measurable consequences of grateful living.”

He pointed out that through their research they “replace armchair philosophy and moral and religious rhetoric regarding gratitude with empirical observation of what gratitude is and what it does in people’s lives.”

To develop gratitude, he suggests keeping a gratitude journal until it becomes a mental habit so that “eventually, the mind will turn toward blessing rather than complaining.”

He believes in remembering the bad. “Thinking about the absence of something you cherish intensifies the gratitude for it and you become less likely to squander it or take it for granted,” Emmons said.

Another way to encourage gratitude is to form happiness groups. Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling book “The Happiness Project,” provides happiness starter kits. She said: “It is enormously gratifying to see the response from people who want to start groups to do their happiness projects together. Sometimes, these are people who know each other — a group at work or at school or a book group that wants to change focus — and sometimes people join a meet-up with people they do not even know.”

NBC has picked up “The Happiness Project,” and Kristin Davis is set to play the lead. This modern-day Pollyanna is a “Sex and the City” graduate.

More than just individual joy and happy feelings, gratitude appears to pave the way for a positive societal direction. Froh said he is finding links between attitude and action in young people: “A child who is grateful today is more likely to want to give back to society. Gratitude may be what ignites the helping process.”

Rita Watson, an associate fellow at Yale University’s Ezra Stiles College, is a columnist with The Providence Journal.

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