If the idea that practicing virtues like gratitude can make us happy sounds more spiritual than scientific, you may be surprised to learn that the Positive Psychology Movement has some hard research to back up this claim.
The best-known research is described in the book Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In his groundbreaking study, Seligman asked volunteers to do one of five different tasks. At the beginning of the study, and for six months after, they also took an online happiness/depression assessment to measure their state of mind.
Of the five tasks, one was supposed to be an “inert” or “placebo” activity. As expected, it had a small and short-lived effect on the participant’s happiness. One of the other initial activities also had a small effect that lasted slightly longer.
Three activities, however, had a significant effect on the participant’s happiness that lasted longer than expected.
In the one that had the strongest immediate effect, participants were given a week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude – in person – to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked. These people’s happiness went up dramatically right after the exercise, and then slowly returned to normal over a six month period. (I describe the other exercises in The Secret of Emotions).
Gratitude, of course, is a core virtue, so it should not surprise anyone that such an intense expression of it would have a positive effect on a person’s feelings, but that this positive effect could last up to six months gives us reason for encouragement in our own lives.
Perhaps before this Thanksgiving, each of us should set aside some time to not only think about what we are grateful for this year, but actually write it down. Think ahead to all of the people you expect to see at your Thanksgiving feast, and try to remember something nice they have done, or some character quality that you particularly admire, and then write it down on a card. When it comes around to your turn to tell people what you are grateful for, instead of stumbling through a last-minute list of half-remembered, half-sincere appreciations, you can share with each person at the table exactly how much they mean to you.
I guarantee you that the time you spend on this will be remembered by both you and your family much longer than your candied yams.