I am reading the book The Compassionate Instinct , a collection of articles about the science of human goodness. One of the articles, “Pay It Forward” by Robert A. Emmons shows how an attitude of gratitude results in people becoming more generous to others.
He begins by giving reasons why people lack gratitude: “We like to think that we are our own creators and that our lives are ours to do with as we please. We take things for granted. We assume that we are totally responsible for all the good that comes our way. After all, we have earned it. We deserve it.” Emmons shares about a scene from The Simpsons where Bart says grace at the table: “Dear God, we paid for all the stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Emmons says that a grateful person sees a bigger picture in which we are all dependent on someone else for what we have.
Bernie and I experienced a particular year in our life together when we reported zero income. I have referred to it as “our year of poverty.” I have to be honest. I did not handle it well. But with hindsight, I have come to appreciate the lessons it afforded us such as compassion for the poor and a sense of the difference between our needs and our wants. But someone pointed out that we were able to pull out of the situations due to innumerable gifts from others. For example, our upbringings by middle class hard workers who were resourceful, the attention and care of those who helped us to relocate and helped Bernie to find a job, the availability of jobs during that time, Bernie’s parents who helped with his education and those who were his teachers, family members and friends who helped us get through the year. I wish I could have had this kind of awareness when we were actually living through that difficult year.
I know people today who are able to have gratitude even as the circumstances of their lives are dire. It is an amazing thing to witness. These are people who have been unable to find work or are suffering some pretty serious health issues. Hearing their words of gratitude is an inspiration to me – and humbling. It shakes me up a bit as I look at my paultry problems.
Emmons lists benefits to having an attitude of gratitude: (1) It strengthens social ties, “cultivates an individual’s sense of interconnectedness.” (2) It increases a sense of personal worth. “If someone has incurred a personal cost to helping me out, how can I not conclude that I have value in that person’s eyes?” (3) It can reduce depression as it alters the attitude toward life in general. (4) It motivates us to return the goodness we have been given, thus perpetuating a cycle of giving and receiving, increasing happiness in the world.
I’ve had it suggested that making it a practice to list the things for which you are grateful can change your life. I think I will make a list today.