12 Feb 2013
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Thankfulness is a state of being that brings us peace and joy. Since 2000, a systematic study of thankfulness has been conducted by the positive psychology community, especially at Emmons Lab. We can practice thankfulness in two ways:

* Externally: By expressing gratitude to those who have helped us, we make them feel good. In making others feel good, we feel good ourselves. Further, our expression of gratitude reinforces positive behavior in others. So it benefits us and society at large. It's a win win situation.

* Internally: By expressing gratitude to others internally, we become more peaceful, relaxed, at ease. A person who is calm and relaxed can accomplish more than a person who is agitated.

Why Practice Thankfulness?

An excerpt from the Wikipedia page on Gratitude (original article has references to psychological studies as well):

A large body of recent work has suggested that people who are more grateful have higher levels of subjective well-being. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance. Grateful people have more positive ways of coping with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpret and grow from the experience, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem. Grateful people also have less negative coping strategies, being less likely to try to avoid the problem, deny there is a problem, blame themselves, or cope through substance use. Grateful people sleep better, and this seems to be because they think less negative and more positive thoughts just before going to sleep.

Thankfulness Techniques

In expressing thankfulness, it helps to identify three things: (a) the individual, (b) their action, and (c) a positive quality in the individual. Identification of positive qualities helps us: they rub off on us; we absorb them.

Daily diary: Write one line per day: "I am thankful for X" or "I am thankful to Y for X", where X and Y change every day. For example, "I am thankful for awesome lunch cooked by my mom today." or "I am thankful that National Geographic prepared an awesome documentary with panoramic views of Alaska". Day by day, as we start realizing the enormous number of things that are done for us, we feel indebted and an urge to serve others will arise.

First e-mail: The first email of a day could be sent to somebody who helped you the previous day.

Letter of thanks: Identify an individual who has played a significant positive role in your life. Compose a letter of thanks addressed to that individual. Finally, give the letter to that individual.

Five minute narration: Find a partner. For five minutes, thank somebody for an act they did yesterday, identifying positive qualities in their acts.

Walking with gratitude: Heard this from a good friend. The idea is to walk very slowly and with each step, remember an act by somebody who helped you. This activity sounds pretty intense!

Thankfulness for ordinary luxuries: Thankfulness can be practiced by routinely or ritually remembering people whose efforts have resulted in luxuries that we tend to take for granted: the food on our plate, our toilet facilities, hiking trails, and so on.

Our Food Plate

By remembering all the individuals whose efforts contributed to the food on our plate, a strong feeling of interconnectedness with other fellow human beings is generated.

Where did the steamed rice in our plate come from? How many individuals were involved in making sure that your food plate had rice grains? Somebody sowed the seeds, somebody cared for the plants for several months, somebody harvested them, somebody transported the grains, somebody packaged them, somebody sold them, somebody opened the package and boiled them, somebody served them to you. In fact, agriculture was not learnt in a day. It took generations of repeated trails and error for our generation to know how to grow rice.

Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (304 pages, 2010) by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung is a nice book with themes centered around food. Book WebsiteFacebook Page.

Toilet Gratitude Meditation

Toilet Awareness and Gratitude Meditation is a Facebook Group that advocates thankfulness of healthy sanitation available to us. World toilet Day is observed annually on 19 November. About 2.5 billion humans struggle for proper sanitation. Here are some words to remind us of the gift of toilets that many of us take for granted:

All human beings are the same in this …
Every day we need to find a way to relieve the body of its waste.
So, when we have facilities to make this private, easy, clean, and safe, let us wish the same for everyone!
And reflect with gratitude upon our simple blessings.
And give thanks for all those who have helped or help make it possible:

For the one who built this toilet, the one who installed it, the one who cleans it;
For the plumbing, the water, the paper, the cleaning supplies, the fan to take the smell away, the sewage treatment plants for processing of the waste;
For the rivers and fields and soil microbes which accept back whatever we get rid of.
May we be mindful and not take for granted the hard work and kindness of everyone who contributes to our lives.

The Five Love Languages

The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts (2008 pages, 2009) by Gary Chapman says that partners in the Western world express love for each other through five different channels: (a) Words of affirmation (thankfulness): you are open and expressive in telling your partner how wonderful you think they are, how much you appreciate them, (b) Acts of service: you offer to watch the kids while your partner goes to the gym, (c) Affection: warm hugs, kisses, touch, (d) Quality time: this is about being together, fully present and engaged in activities, (e) Gifts: you love to give gifts to your partner. Gary Chapman believes that we all have one or two predominant channels of expressing love. Most of us expect the same type of love in return. Problems between partners arise when they do not appreciate that there are five different ways of expressing love and that different people express love differently.

Fred Luskin: Angry WW-II Fighters

At Stanford, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education offers a course called Compassion Cultivation Training. In Fall 2012, Fred Luskin taught the course. In one of the classes, he narrated the story below.

Early in his career, in 1997, Fred Luskin was given a tough class consisting of disgruntled, angry WW-II fighters. These were men in their 70s who reveled in using foul language to express their anguish at drivers of a certain ethnicity and a certain gender. They were a curmudgeonly bunch, who continued to be angry, disturbed, full of vitriolic feelings towards enemy soldiers who had fired at them in WW-II, about 50 years ago. Fred's goal was to teach them thankfulness, so that they could relax and enjoy their present moment. After three classes, Fred was at his wits end. Finally, he decided to use the soldiers' own experiences to help them become thankful. He asked them: how many good drivers do you see for every bad one? The soldiers estimated it to be about 10:1. So Fred asked them to fold their hands and repeat after him: "Thank you for being a good driver!", "Thank you for being a good driver!", "Thank you for being a good driver!" ten times before he exclaimed, "Oh bad driver! #%*!#%".

Alfred Adler: Fourteen Day Cure Plan

Let's see how thankfulness and service are inter-connected and why both of these are so important.

Alfred Adler, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud are founding fathers of modern psychology. Freud and Jung are still famous. Adler is less so but I like his approach to life. Late in his career, he wrote a couple of non-technical books for lay persons: Understanding Human Nature and What Life Could Mean To You. In one of these books, Adler remarked that his extensive knowledge of psychology could be summed up in his 'Fourteen Day Cure Plan'. He had devised a 'raam-baan' cure (something that works with 100% guarantee) to all psychological problems! All psychological problems? Isn't that an amazing statement, coming from a giant in psychology with extensive field work?

14-Day Cure Plan: What is Adler's approach? At the core of Adler's philosophy lies Gemeinschaftsgefuhl which means "social interest" or "communal feeling". An excerpt from the book Positive Discipline (384 pages, 2006) by Jane Nelsen showcases Adler's approach:

Adler claimed he could cure anyone of mental illness in just fourteen days if they would just do what he told them to do. One day a woman who was extremely depressed came to see Adler. He told her, "I can cure you of your depression in just fourteen days if you will follow my advice."

She was not very enthusiastic when she asked, "What do you want me to do?"

Adler replied, "If you will do one thing for someone else every day for fourteen days, at the end of that time your depression will be gone."

She objected. "Why should I do something for someone else, when no one ever does anything for me?"

Adler jokingly responded, "Well, maybe it will take you twenty-one days." He went on to add, "If you can't think of anything you are willing to do for someone else, just think of what you could do if you felt like it." Adler knew that if she would even think about doing something for someone else, she would be on her way toward improvement.

Alfred Adler is basically suggesting "seva" or "service to others". In Eastern traditions, this helps in "dissolution of I". What Adler is pointing out is that when the "I" becomes strong, we run into major psychological problems. A conversation with Archana Jajodia was along the same lines. She is one of my Computer Science classmates from IIT Delhi. She switched to Psychology and is presently an Assistant Clinical Professor at UC San Diego. A few years ago, I had asked her, "What have you learnt from thousands of hours of listening to people in distress?" Archana's second sentence was something like, "The people with the maximum problems are those who are the most selfish."

Thankfulness: The snippet from Jane Nelsen's book above is worth re-reading and analyzing in detail. Note the statement by the depressed woman: "Why should I do something for someone else, when no one ever does anything for me?" It gives us insight into the woman's thought process. She has become an island, disconnected from society. She feels that nobody does anything for her. She does not feel like doing anything for anybody else. An antidote for her is to start maintaining a thankfulness journal where she identifies and expresses gratitude for something unique every day. After some time, maybe a month or two, she is likely to realize that innumerable individuals are doing things for her. Then a feeling of indebtedness is likely to arise, motivating her to invest time in social service.

Pay it Forward

Many acts have immeasurable value. Furthermore, the value of two acts is often incomparable. So we can never be sure if we really paid back the individual who helped us. Sometimes, help is intangible. How much value would you ascribe to help that resulted in avoidance of serious pitfalls?

The best way to repay our debts is through thankfulness combined with the "pay it forward" policy. In other words, (a) be thankful to those who have served you, and (b) serve others whenever possible, not limited to those whom we identified as our benefactors.

Our ancestors discovered many things like agriculture, medicine, exercises, and so on. It is not possible for us to repay our ancestors for their gifts to us. The right approach is to "pay it forward" to future generations.

Thankfulness to Those Who Generate Negative Reactions in Us

Can you imagine being thankful to those who irritate us, annoy us and make us angry? This fascinating idea is espoused by many Eastern traditions. For example, two of the Eight Verses by Dalai Lama are along these lines:

When I see beings of unpleasant character
Oppressed by strong negativity and suffering,
May I hold them dear - for they are rare to find -
As if I have discovered a jewel treasure!

When someone whom I have helped,
Or in whom I have placed great hopes,
Mistreats me in extremely hurtful ways,
May I regard him still as my precious teacher.

Why should we treat such annoying or hurtful individuals with such reverence, equal to our teachers? Because these individuals can be helpful in purifying ourselves. How? Fundamentally, we are always projecting our feelings to the external world. So when the presence of another individual generates negativity in us, we must examine ourselves to identify what lies in us that is generating that negativity. Ultimately, what matters is our reaction to individuals and situations, not these individuals and situations themselves.

A couplet by Sant Kabir comes to mind:

(original by Kabir)
nindak niyare rakhiye, angan kuti chhawai;
binu pani bin sabuna, nirmal kare subhaw.

(translation in English)
Keep your critic close to you; give him shelter in your courtyard.
Without soap and water, he cleanses your character.

Alice Herz Sommer: "Everything is a Present"

The video in the box was made in 2012 when Alice Herz Sommer was 108 years old. She is a skilled pianist, a mother who raised her child through the Holocaust, and a cancer survivor. She lives by herself in a tiny London flat and practices piano three hours a day. Two key themes in her life are thankfulness and optimism. Memorable quotes from the video:

"I look where it is good. I know about the bad but I look at the good thing." :)

"Never hate. We are all sometimes good, sometimes bad."

"Complaining does not change people. When they complain — bla bla bla — nothing changes!"

"Be thankful. Thankful for everything.. seeing the sun.. seeing the smile.. a nice word of somebody. Everything is a present. I learnt to be thankful for everything."

"Hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated."

Links: KarmaTube videoYouTube videoA Century of Wisdom (a book written about her life).

Thankfulness Videos
Brother David Steindl-Rast

An awesome video on gratefulness! Another version is this video which has video clips instead of static photos; audio narration is the same.

McGonigal Sisters

Kelly McGonigal is Professor of Psychology at Stanford. Her sister Jane McGonigal is a game designer. In the video above, they outline a technique for thankfulness: identify a person, their action (for which you're grateful) and a quality in that person. Then express thankfulness in the form of a note which mentions their action and their quality.

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