Our seven week fall series will conclude on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day. Since we’ve been working with a book called Happiness, I thought I would focus on the role of gratitude in helping to develop that deep sense of flourishing which is the definition of happiness found in the book.
I have recently come across a veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia of resources on the topic of gratitude at the Greater Good Science Center located at UC Berkeley. One of their major projects is called Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, a multiyear project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
One article which caught my eye was titled; “Can Giving Thanks Help Us Heal from Trauma?” The article summarized two studies which explored the role of gratitude in helping victims of violence and natural disasters.
One study involved 522 Israeli teenagers who lived through a five day missile attack by Palestinian forces. The researchers were interested in finding out how the teens viewed their lives after such a violent event which resulted in school being cancelled and home life disrupted when they had to flee to bomb shelters.
The study found a link between gratitude and reduced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder: “…life satisfaction—that is, happiness with their school, family, and prospects—was the strongest protection against PTSD… But gratitude proved to have a decisive role in helping the adolescents to be more satisfied with their lives, mainly because “thank you” is a form of cognitive appraisal that helped the teens see their situations in a new light.”
They concluded that gratitude did not prevent or act as a shield against psychological trauma in the face of violence or natural disaster but it was very effective in helping people to recover. The reason: “…the answer may lie in gratitude’s ability to make us take a second look at our lives, turning our attention from the bad things to the good—a cognitive process that needs time to unfold.”
In our book study, the author of Happiness, Matthieu Ricard, talks about the “mental toxins” of hatred, ignorance and obsession that need to be purged in order to attain the degree of life satisfaction that fits his definition of happiness. When a toxin enters the body, trauma is the result unless a timely and effective antidote is administered.
Based on the work being done at the Greater Good Science Center, gratitude looks like a good candidate for an effective antidote to our mental toxins. All we have to do is pause and take time to look around and find one thing that we are grateful for in our immediate surroundings. This simple reappraisal of our experience of the now moment shifts our focus from negative to positive which sets in motion a cognitive process that leads to a form of healing.
We are fortunate to live in a country that had the collective wisdom to designate a national holiday dedicated to a celebration of gratitude. This year in addition to the festivities on Thanksgiving Day, check out these resources. For more information on the Gratitude Project at UC Berkeley, click here Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. And as always, Brother David Stendl Rast provides a wealth of information and inspiration at The Network for Grateful Living. When you combine happiness with gratitude, you get Happy Thanksgiving!