Jan. 14, 2013 at 9:42 AM ET
Every night before she goes to bed, Shana Schneider, 34, an entrepreneur in New Haven, Conn., writes down one thing that makes her thankful. “I’ve been doing it for about a year, and it’s given me a whole new perspective,” she says. “The other morning I noticed the sky was a beautiful color, and I stopped and thought, Maybe that’s what I’ll be thankful for today!”
Schneider’s new habit is one of the simplest steps to increasing happiness, and many people are onto it. In a new national survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted for the John Templeton Foundation, 64 percent of women say they express gratitude in order to make themselves feel good. It’s a smart move. Academics studying the subject have found that feeling grateful and expressing it decreases stress, increases happiness, and generally makes you feel better about life. In fact, the Templeton Foundation — a nonprofit that funds research on questions relating to human purpose — is investing $5.6 million to fund new research on ideas ranging from how gratitude improves health to its role in children’s emotional development.
Knowing how to say “thank you” matters more than ever when times are tough. As Americans worry about the recession, climate change, and difficult economic years ahead, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and wonder how everything got to be so grim. But bad times can also make us realize how fortunate we are. When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Northeast last fall, thousands of homes were destroyed — including hundreds in the Midland Beach neighborhood on Staten Island, N.Y. Lifelong resident Tracy Lotz-Baccale, 38, lost her car and many of her most cherished possessions, but she, her husband, their children, and their two dogs survived; their home was flooded and severely damaged, but unlike most of the bungalows around it, it’s still standing, and Lotz-Baccale and her family were able to move back a few weeks after the storm. “So many families lost everything,” she says. “When somebody reaches out a hand to help — to give a coat, or money, or a hot meal — the gratitude you feel is just overwhelming.”
Gratitude functions as “a psychological immune system that bulletproofs you in times of crisis,” says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of the forthcoming "Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity." It’s hard to feel grateful when you lose your job or home or you face a difficult illness, but an ability to re-focus can get you through. “Our mind often latches on to what is wrong. There’s no need to ignore the negative or say life is perfect,” Emmons adds. “But once you have the skill of coping gratefully, you can find a new redemptive frame of reference.”
Gratitude requires work and attention, Emmons acknowledges. “But now that we know its advantages,” he says, “we have reasons to encourage it in ourselves.” And the better you understand it, the more you can cultivate it not only in yourself, but also in those around you — and the more benefits you’ll reap. Here’s what the Templeton survey uncovered about our national attitudes toward gratitude, and how we can make the most of this universal and free — yet priceless — tool for health, intimacy, and happiness.
A richer life starts here
Emily Kirkpatrick went back to work as vice president of the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, Ky., just two months after her twin boys (now almost a year old) were born. Passionate about both her children and the cause of literacy, Kirkpatrick, 37, was determined not to let stress overwhelm her, and she knew gratitude would be an essential part of her strategy. “Gratitude came into my life during my pregnancy,” she explains. “I knew all the complications to having twins, and every time a test came back fine, I thought about how lucky I was.” Taking time to give mental thanks buoyed her spirits through the pregnancy, and once her boys were born, she made a conscious effort to continue the practice. Driving home from work each evening, she takes the 20-minute commute to reflect on the good experiences of the day, rather than problems. “Thinking about what made me grateful lets me come into the house with less stress and more positive energy.”
Gratitude is a way of framing your life circumstances, Emmons points out. “Grateful people use words like lucky or fortunate or blessed,” he says. “They don’t focus on what they’re lacking — they make sure they see the good in what they have.” And the more you see the good, he adds, the more good you see. Most people surveyed seem to understand this: 94 percent of respondents agreed that people who are grateful are more fulfilled and live a richer life. And gratitude doesn’t just improve your outlook, respondents said, it’s also a powerful get-ahead strategy: 85 percent said that gratitude helps people succeed “because nobody gets to the top on their own.” And more than half said a grateful boss would be more likely to reach the big time because colleagues would support her.
“It took me a while to realize that being grateful rebounds in your favor,” says Beth Schermer, 57, a business consultant and mother of three in Phoenix, Ariz. “Appreciating what you have doesn’t make you less ambitious. It just makes you more grounded as you keep striving.”
Our national gratitude gap
Even those who feel a strong sense of gratitude may be missing out on some of its benefits by not expressing it to the people around them: In the Templeton survey, 90 percent of respondents described themselves as grateful for their family, and 87 percent are similarly grateful for their closest friends. With those whopping numbers, you might think that people would spend a lot of time contemplating their good fortune. But only 51 percent said they reflect daily on their gratitude and even fewer — 48 percent — express those feelings on a regular basis.
Why the disconnect — especially when it comes to the people we love most? “In a close relationship, you may assume the other person knows how you feel, so you don’t have to say thanks,” Emmons says. Expressing gratitude to someone is an acknowledgement that you may have an obligation to reciprocate whatever that person has done for you, he adds — a “thanks” is a type of tacit commitment to give back that we may be reluctant to make, at least on a regular basis. But in more casual relationships, where the stakes and expectations are lower, gratitude comes easily: Almost all respondents said they’d be likely to thank their server at a nice restaurant (97 percent), for example, or their salesperson at a department store (91 percent); more than half (58 percent) would even thank a TSA screener at the airport.
There’s also a significant gap in our own feelings of gratitude versus how much of it we see in others. Compared to 10 years ago, 58 percent of respondents said, they are more likely to feel grateful; but almost the same number (59 percent) said that most people today are less likely to have an attitude of gratitude compared to a decade or two ago. It doesn’t take a statistician to figure out that both perceptions can’t possibly be accurate.
He thanks, she thanks
By almost any measure, women are more grateful than men. Emmons points to a 54-nation study which found women on top of the gratitude scales in every country and every culture. And women in the Templeton survey were much more likely than men to feel grateful to a wide variety of people, to think that gratitude makes life richer, and to express gratitude to their children and family. But the survey also revealed one unexpected twist: Two-thirds of men say they express their appreciation to their wives every day, while only 59 percent of women return the favor.
“Men tend to take their friendships, their successes, jobs and the rest of their lives for granted — but not their wives,” says psychologist Scott Haltzman, Ph.D., author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Women." “Married men are healthier, happier men, and intuitively they understand that their wives are an extremely important, valuable part of their lives.”
But while men think they are expressing gratitude, their wives don’t seem to hear it: 47 percent of women said they wish their partner or spouse would give them more appreciation for what they do. (Only 32 percent of men felt the same.) Part of the problem may be a stereotypical, but nonetheless significant, communication breakdown: “Men have a tendency to demonstrate feelings through action,” Haltzman says. The Templeton research confirms this: “I show gratitude to my wife by cuddling with her on the couch,” said one Chicago husband who participated in the survey. “Sometimes I ask how her day went, but I usually don’t.” Another husband surveyed said he fills his wife’s car with gas “as my way of saying how much I appreciate her.” Recognizing those actions can help women feel less frustrated by their husband’s lack of verbal communication, says Haltzman. “Ask yourself, ‘What can I look for that’s proof that he cares about me?’” he suggests. “Catch your husband being good.”
Women in the survey say they’d love to catch their man giving them flowers or an unexpected gift, and they’re even happier if a spouse simply does chores or errands. But most men will truly hit the mark if they close their wallets and open their ears: A whopping 93 percent of women said they’d be grateful if a spouse simply listens when they have a problem. That was #1 on the list, even edging out a husband’s expressing love and affection. “Listen to me and don’t say anything!” says Shana Schneider with a big smile, hoping her husband will get the message. “Just listen and don’t respond by immediately trying to fix it. Then I’ll be grateful! I’ll remember that over flowers or chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like a good vacation. But men should know that the things we want don’t cost a lot. Look at me. Give me a hug. Say thanks. How expensive is that?”
Unfortunately, a lot of men just don’t get this, says Haltzman. “They need to be instructed that listening really is important,” he explains. “So women need to clarify their expectations. When men get a play-by-play of what to do, and some reinforcement for doing it right, they’ll do it.” Women’s greater capacity for gratitude overall can also benefit a marriage, Haltzman adds: “When your partner recognizes that you’re focusing on the positive things, they’re going to feel more competent and encouraged—and it starts a cycle of positive behaviors,” he says. “Gratitude is a gift that you give both of you.”
To join a discussion about showing gratitude to the people you love, visit the Grateful Household page on Facebook. You also can share your reasons for being grateful on Twitter using the #GratitudeTODAY hashtag.