Published Thursday, August 16, 2012

The attitude of gratitude

Ever since Samuel Smiles wrote his remarkably influential “Self Help” in 1859, hundreds of books in the same vein have appeared in print. Twentieth-century authors like Dale Carnegie and John Maxwell sold millions of copies of their works, all aimed at inspiring people to improve their attitudes or work habits or personal character. So obviously there’s been a lot of interest for a long time in at least reading about self-improvement, even if we don’t actually do it.

I recently picked up a cheap, second-hand copy of a 2008 paperback by Dr. Robert A. Emmons entitled “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.” Emmons is a professor at the University of California and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. At first, I thought I’d skim a few pages, glean a few quotable quotes and then stick it on the shelf with all the other self-improvement books gathering dust in my basement. But this one grabbed my attention on the first page. I couldn’t put it down until I read the other 208.

This isn’t just a feel-good collection of generalities and catchy phrases. It’s rooted in what the latest science can teach us. In language a lay reader can easily understand, Emmons reveals groundbreaking research into the previously under examined emotion we call “gratitude.” As defined by Emmons, gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside one’s self.

Years of study by Emmons and his associates show that “grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness.”

A grateful attitude enriches life. Emmons believes it elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. The science of it proves that gratitude is an indispensable key to happiness (the more of it you can muster, the happier you’ll be) and happiness adds up to nine years to life expectancy.

Gratitude isn’t just a knee-jerk, unthinking “thank you.” It’s much more than a warm and fuzzy sentiment. It’s not automatic. Some people, in fact, feel and express it all too rarely. And as grateful a person as you may think you are, chances are you can develop an even more grateful attitude, a task that carries ample rewards that more than compensate for its moral and intellectual challenges.

Emmons cites plenty of evidence for his thesis but most readers will find his seventh and final chapter, a mere 24 pages, the most useful part of the book. There the author lays out 10 steps (exercises, in fact) for cultivating this critically important emotion. If I had space to tell you here what those steps were, you might not read the book.

So if you want a serious self-improvement book, pick this one up. I guarantee that you’ll be grateful for the recommendation.


(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N. Y., and Atlanta.)

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