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Op-Ed

What’s the Point of Giving Thanks?

Thanksgiving is upon us, and while what we’re thankful for is up to each of us, the reasons we feel so appreciative are unclear.

Ah, Thanksgiving. Turkey and stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Yams, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. That, at any rate, is what comes to the mind of most when they consider the fourth Thursday in November. Food, food, and a four-day weekend.

And so it slowly joins the ranks of the many American holidays whose original purpose has fallen down the memory hole. Who remembers a time when Christmas wasn’t about Santa Claus, when the Fourth of July wasn’t about fireworks, when Halloween didn’t involve uncostumed teenage boys going door to door extorting candy from their neighbors and teenage girls dressing up as “Sexy Cop,” “Sexy Rabbit,” and “Sexy Chairman of the Federal Reserve.”

Still, is Thanksgiving’s transition from gratefulness to gluttony such a bad thing? Honestly, having an entire holiday devoted to a second-tier emotion like gratitude seems a little silly. And, when you get right down to it, what’s the point of giving thanks anyway?

That is a question that has long intrigued Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. He has devoted much of his career to investigating the causes and effects of gratitude, both on individuals and society at large.

In one of his earlier papers on the subject, “Is Gratitude a Moral Affect?” [pdf], from 2001, McCullough notes the scant attention gratitude has received from psychologists, relative to other emotions. One reason, McCullough speculates, could be that scholars “view gratitude as a sociological phenomenon… rather than as a psychological one.” In other words, people thank one another because their Aunt Valerie told them to, not out of any inherent compulsion.

We tend to feel more gratitude toward strangers than relatives. It’s unlikely your relationship with your mother will grow stronger as the result of a thank-you note.

After years of study, McCullough believes otherwise: that gratitude is as primal and instinctual as love, fear, and anger.

“There are three evolutionary possibilities that explain why people experience and express gratitude,” McCullough tells me. The first is as a “moral barometer”—that is, an indicator that something has changed in the relationship between the giver and the receiver of a gift, analogous to how a weather barometer indicates changes in atmospheric pressure. “Gratitude causes people to take note of benefits they’ve received from others, to acknowledge them, and to attempt to repay with similar kindnesses in the future,” McCullough explains. “This sort of recognition and response system may have helped to support the evolution of what biologists have called reciprocal altruism.”

The second possibility is that gratitude motivates people to “pay it forward”—that is, to bestow favors onto third parties. Here again, the development of reciprocal altruism is the biggest beneficiary.

The third hypothesis is, in many ways, the most compelling of the three. “Gratitude may have helped our ancestors to convert relationships with strangers or distant acquaintances into friendships,” says McCullough. A stranger thanked for his largess may someday become a confidant.

As McCullough put it in his most recent paper, “The Social Causes and Effects of Gratitude” [pdf], as “close friendships were tremendously important for human social evolution,” gratitude might serve as a powerful survival instinct.

As corroboration for this final possibility, McCullough points out that we tend to feel more gratitude toward strangers than we do toward relatives. After all, it’s unlikely that your relationship with your mother will grow stronger as the result of a thank-you note. Or, as McCullough summarizes: “Gratitude motivates us to deepen relationships with people whom we currently don’t know all that well.”

 

So gratitude may well have served some function in the distant past. But what good is it today?

Many appear to have concluded: not much.

“I keep hearing more and more often that saying thank you has been lost in America,” says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies. “I somewhat have to agree just from my own experiences.”

But as you’d expect from someone who literally wrote the book on manners, Fox is quick to stress the importance of giving thanks. “Saying ‘thank you’ is a gracious way to repay kindness with kindness. More importantly, it shows you’re respectful and it makes others feel appreciated.

“We have heard it so many times, but it is true: It’s the little things that count,” she says. “The little acts of kindness. And the more you practice, the more natural it becomes.”

Fair enough, I tell her. But what’s in it for me? “Expressing of gratitude can actually make you feel better; maybe stay healthier; and, like forgiveness, can be healing,” Fox says. “One of the keys to happiness is having good relationships; one way of building and maintaining good relationships is by showing gratitude. A simple thank-you, or thank-you note, can go a long way.”

 

Pastor Andy Gilman of the United Church of Christ has also observed the connection between gratitude and happiness.

“Gratitude can be a practice of civility or a reflection of satisfaction,” he says, “but it also stretches into deep realms that might almost be philosophical. Niklas Luhmann, a German theorist who wrote about deep trust, claimed that people have a basic attitude of either trusting life in general or distrusting life in general. Once either viewpoint has been established, experience tends to reinforce it, and it is unusual to switch over.”

“The response indicates a sense of the preciousness and primacy of what still remains. This is gratitude.”

The concept of “emotional inertia” is found throughout the literature on gratitude; that people with a positive outlook on life tend to interpret available evidence as supporting that viewpoint, and the dour do likewise. This accounts for the ability of some to always find the silver lining, to feel gratitude even in the worst of situations.

Gilman is quick to point out, though, that this isn’t just Pollyannaism. “This does not mean that the bad things are denied, nor does this attitude entail a simple-minded optimism that insists that everything is for the best. But gratitude acknowledges that even though many things work out for the worst, much is given.

“Thus, it is frequently the response of those who have undergone dramatic problems—car accidents, fires—who summarize their experience by saying, among other things, ‘We were so lucky,’” he says. “Of course, if they were entirely lucky, the bad thing would not have happened. But their response indicates a sense of the preciousness and primacy of what still remains. This is gratitude.”

 

So, if you’re happy, you tend to experience gratitude, which in turn maintains your happiness. That’s great—if you’re happy to start with.

But what if you’re not? Can you somehow harness the power of gratitude to improve your disposition?

Robert Emmons thinks so. In his book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, he outlines 10 steps to “stay grateful.” Foremost among them is the keeping of a “gratitude journal,” a regularly updated list of benefits you have received from others. Spending a few moments every day focusing on the good, he asserts, can nourish a positive attitude, and perhaps even reverse (or at least arrest) a negative one.

And he has data to back up his claims. In his study “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens” [pdf], coauthored with Michael McCullough, Emmons divided a number of participants into three groups, asking the first to keep gratitude journals, the second to maintain “hassle journals” (where they recorded daily irritants), and the third to keep a journal of some sort, with no explicit guidance as to what it should contain. For 10 weeks the emotional and physical wellbeing of the participants were assessed. Those in the group that kept gratitude journals reported more happiness, more optimism, and more connectedness.

“We have found physical benefits also,” Emmons says of his studies. “People exercise more, get better sleep, report more energy and vitality.”

How can forcing yourself to feel an emotion have all these benefits, I asked. “Gratitude works because, as a way of perceiving and interpreting life, it recruits other positive emotions, like joy, contentment, and hope,” Emmons told me. “They all have direct physical benefits, most likely through the immune system or endocrine system.

“Clinically, here is a powerful reason for giving thanks,” he continues. “Millions of people struggle with depression, and research has shown that depressed individuals engage in self-focus that intensifies their gloominess. By practicing gratitude, attention is directed away from the self and more to others and what they are providing for us.

“Gratitude,” Emmons says, “is the best approach to life.”