Can You Be Grateful When You Don’t Feel Happy?

Since this is Thanksgiving in the US. it seems appropriate to look at giving thanks. I realize the holiday comes with a load of baggage that makes it difficult for many to celebrate. Aside from the historical roots, and the racial divides around it, the current day experience of it speaks to our soul, to our need to be happy and grateful. Let’s put aside for a moment the event and think about the emotions. Arthur C Brooks has done a great job of teasing out the issues, looking at the science, and providing steps we can use to find gratefulness in your own life which leads to happiness. Something we need to look for and celebrate everyday of the year.

Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?

I stumbled over this last question. At the time, I believed one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seemed somehow dishonest or fake — a kind of bourgeois, saccharine insincerity that one should reject. It’s best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily. This point will elicit a knowing, mirthless chuckle from readers whose Thanksgiving dinners are usually ruined by a drunk uncle who always needs to share his political views. Thanks for nothing.

Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.

But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.

This is not just self-improvement hokum. For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.

The NY Times op-ed piece by Brooks will give you the details and all the links to the science behind it. Be grateful for writers who put it all together so we can just gather the gems and be happy.

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