As children, our habits of giving thanks likely were cultivated by an attentive parent or by a Sunday school teacher. We were given some crayons and asked to show our gratitude in picture form. We proved it by drawing awkwardly shaped pets, stick-figure families and unappetizing Thanksgiving dishes. Still, Mom recognized the value in our elementary expressions of thanks, and the crinkled paper ended up on the fridge.
Now, as adults, anxiety can crowd out gratitude. Our daily papers are clouded by talk of "uncertainty," "decline" and "recession." We may pause for a dutiful moment of thanks over a turkey-laden table, but the reality of grocery and heating bills isn't far from mind.
Gratitude may even seem more like a childish expression than a sober, adult frame of mind. Living day by day with a guiding spirit of gratitude takes work.
Is it worth it? Is the grateful life really the better way?
According to some solid new science, the answer is yes.
In a recent paper on chronic financial strain, Dr. Neal Krause, professor for Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan, explores gratitude as a buffer against stress.
Since persistent financial problems are commonly linked to depression, Krause's work is concerned with identifying factors that might alleviate those depressive symptoms. His recent paper is a longitudinal study of the elderly, observing the role gratitude plays in their coping with financial strain, and how religion shapes a sense of gratitude.
The findings couldn't be timelier. Gratitude, it turns out, has significant stress-buffering potential in the midst of economic anxiety. While "chronic financial strain has a fairly substantial impact on depressive symptoms for older adults who are relatively less grateful ... the noxious effects of persistent economic problems on depressive symptoms are completely offset for older people who feel the most grateful."
And gratitude doesn't just offer insurance against the stress of economic uncertainty. Krause's work also suggests that "greater feelings of gratitude are associated with greater life satisfaction, greater happiness, and fewer symptoms of depression."
Why does gratitude work this way? Krause says it's because "people with a greater sense of gratitude are more likely to ask for social support from significant others, find growth in the face of adversity, and engage in positive coping responses, such as active problem solving."
The data also show that those who attend worship services more frequently express more feelings of gratitude. As Krause and other researchers explain, individuals who believe God's purposes are at work in their lives see difficulty as a part of his plan and understand trials as opportunities for spiritual growth and personal development.
Krause is one of a growing number of social scientists who seek to understand how our recognition and worship of God affects the ways we cope with daily stress, financial strain and terminal illness. The implications for individuals, the life of our communities and for public policy are worth serious consideration.
That's the subject, in fact, of a coming Washington conference at which Krause and other top researchers will explore the mounting evidence on religious practice and physical and mental health outcomes. (Details on "Religious Practice and Health: What the Research Says," a free event scheduled for Dec. 3, can be found at heritage.org/ReligionResearchConference. The conference is open to the public and available to an online audience via Webcast.)
A child naturally feels grateful when he sees his "What I'm Thankful For" crayon masterpiece posted on the fridge. Here's hoping he carries that attitude into adulthood. His health and future happiness may depend on it.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. Jessica Prol is marketing coordinator for the DeVos Center.