Eventually social science works its way around to confirming eternal verities. So it is with gratitude.
An article in a psychological journal a few years ago noted that “throughout history, religious, theological and philosophical treatises have viewed gratitude as integral to well-being.” Psychology has recently worked to quantify the wisdom of the ages and confirmed — sure enough — it was correct.
A raft of recent research has established that grateful people are happier people. They are less depressed and less stressed. They are less likely to envy others and more likely to want to share. They even sleep better. As the journal article put it, empirical work “has suggested gratitude is as strongly correlated with well-being as are other positive traits, and has suggested that this relationship is causal.”
Gratitude has long been a neglected quality. A decade or so ago, the Encyclopedia of Human Emotions didn’t include it. (For that matter, neither did Bill Bennett’s affirmatively traditional The Book of Virtues.) As the New York Times reported back in 1998, “Psychologists rarely think much about what makes people happy. They focus on what makes them sad, on what makes them anxious.” They were more likely to study, in other words, the miseries of a Woody Allen than the wellsprings of joy.
Gratitude constitutes what philosopher David Hume called a “calm passion.” It doesn’t have the theatrical potential of anger and hatred, or courage and sacrifice. Nonetheless, there’s a reason it has been considered central to the good life and a good society by all major religions and by thinkers stretching from Cicero (“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others”) to Oprah (“Whenever you can’t think of something to be grateful for, remember your breath”).
Gratitude acknowledges our dependence on others and the debt we owe because of it. Grateful people want, somehow, to return the favor of their undeserved windfall. It is a sentiment that, in the jargon, is “pro-social.” A leading figure in its study, Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, maintains that it binds us to others beyond the ties of family and of commercial transactions.
Gratitude is at the root of patriotism, of the impulse to preserve and improve our patrimony. In a culture that tends to celebrate self-glorification, gratitude points us beyond our own demands and discontents. It inclines us to see all around us a world of gifts.
What did we do to inherit a country that is free and prosperous? To deserve Charlie Parker or Mark Twain? To build the Golden Gate Bridge or the Chrysler Building? To measure up to the beauties of the Catholic Mass or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Or simply to prove worthy of traffic lights and potable water?
In the classic essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read writes an account of the production of a pencil from the point of view of the pencil. The bottom line is that no one person could ever know enough to produce it alone: “Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.” If that’s true of the humble pencil, how much more so does it hold for our civilization?
Without gratitude, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “We are left with the numbing, benumbing thought that we owe nothing to Plato and Aristotle, nothing to the prophets who wrote the Bible, nothing to the generations who fought for freedoms activated in the Bill of Rights.” He called for “a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us.”
John Adams captured the grateful attitude when he acknowledged the hardships of this vale of tears while celebrating it all the same (if in anachronistic language): “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.”
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 King Features Syndicate