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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


With the holidays upon us I have been thinking a good deal about gratitude. What does it really mean to be thankful for something or someone and how do we express that feeling without resorting to trite banalities? Gratitude seems like one of those feathery emotions, hard to pin down though we know it when we feel it. An article in Forbes magazine suggests that there is a science of gratitude based on several studies investigating what happens biologically when people feel gratitude. For the record, Thanksgiving or Christmas thank-you emails from merchants and magazines do not typically elicit that feeling, but I guess none of us are surprised to learn this. Real gratitude takes us outside ourselves whether we are the recipient or the giver. It is not a simple emotion, in fact, according to the studies gratitude is more about forging connections, bonding with someone and feeling empathy with them.

Think about the act of writing a condolence letter, or on a more positive note, holiday cards to friends you may not have seen for some time. It’s on my mind of course because I am in the midst of doing exactly that. No form letters for me, especially as I am sadly neglectful when it comes to routine connection with many folks whom I truly care for and miss. Despite my spotty track record, I do write a personal note at least once a year, with the intention of keeping my connection with distant friends. I mention this not because it is especially laudable, but because it is an act of devotion to tend a relationship, and I set time aside for just this purpose--though in truth I should be doing the same all year long. Before I begin, I take a few minutes to think about the people I am writing to recalling the reasons they are important to me. It evokes the feelings I have towards them and helps me think about how we are connected. It isn't a quick process, and it shouldn't be.

I do not expect a reciprocal note, it’s enough for me to know I spent the effort, but I am always delighted when I do get a touch back, one that fills me in on the lives of my friends and loved ones. The truth is that writing these cards—a few dozen each year, has a very profound effect on me. It makes me feel grateful: for the people who are in my life, grateful that I am able to connect with them, and grateful for my life. I take none of this for granted, but this act of devotion rekindles those feelings in ways I treasure.

According to the studies it seems I am not alone. One study involved 300 people about to enter counseling. A third of the group was asked to write letters of gratitude, while another was asked to study any negative emotions arising from the experience. A control group did nothing. Those that wrote letters demonstrated a significant improvement in their emotional outlook both in the immediate and longer term. Curiously, words of gratitude, or even positive language were not necessary to engender an improved outlook, just the absence of negativity. That seems to square with the finding that both giving and receiving gratitude move us beyond preoccupations with ourselves in a healthy and life affirming way.

Ruminating on this my thoughts turned to a more contemporary mechanism some of us turn to in order to stay in touch. I am of course talking about social media. On the one hand I can see the benefits--a kind of peripheral vision that offers a way to stay connected with friends and acquaintances. Yet I wonder whether it generates the same feelings of gratitude, given the nature of those connections? More, I wonder whether the lurking, occasional outbursts of divisiveness that creep into almost any social media forum, or the brevity of exchanges really do engender empathy, or a sense of real community. Too often the positive aspects--like the dozens of birthday greetings from folks you otherwise would not hear from are anything but perfunctory obligations.

Though I cannot back this up with any scientific study, I suspect it is the intentionality of sitting down to write--electronically or in the old fashioned sense--that has a lot to do with the emotional benefits we accrue. I’ll leave that study to the scientists that are investigating gratitude—maybe I’ll send them a note.

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