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Has Gratitude Become Another Self-Help Fad?

03/13/2014 11:43 am ET | Updated May 13, 2014

As a society, we have taken gratitude and converted it into a formula for personal benefit.

We are urged to cultivate a sense of gratitude for selfish reasons. We are told grateful people have 10 percent fewer stress-related illnesses, are more physically fit and have 12 percent lower blood pressure. They have more satisfying relationships with others and are better liked. Happy people on average earn 7 percent more money, and positive emotions can add up to seven years to your life.

These are all findings from an ongoing study on gratitude and happiness being conducted at the University of California-Davis led by Dr. Robert Emmons, considered the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude and captured in an infographic in the article "How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times." (Kindle Edition Location 138)

It sounds strange, but we are admonished to be grateful so we can be healthier, richer, and live longer. But isn't gratitude about looking outside ourselves, and being thankful for our good fortune?

Has gratitude just become another self-help fad?

Gratitude is about far more than our personal happiness. It is the fuel that builds strong mutually supportive communities that allow each of us to thrive. Dr. Robert Emmons notes in his recent book, Gratitude Works!:

Gratitude is important not only because it helps us feel good but also because it inspires us to do good ... Gratitude [helps us] ... see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships that are mutually reciprocal. (Kindle Edition Location 138)

We are all social animals. A great life is never lived alone; a great life is always lived as a vibrant member of a supportive community. It is only when we are members of such a community that we can grow into our human potential. Without gratitude, supportive communities don't exist because each person is too quick to take all the credit for their success and too quick to lay all the blame for their failures on someone else. (Does that mentality sound all too familiar?)

Like humility, compassion, perseverance and tolerance, gratitude is a virtue. Developing a personal virtue is not easy. It takes time, self-discipline and persistent effort. It is hard, and it is worth it because it allows us to see the world and our place in the world with clearer vision.

Let me give you an example. In our society, many of us struggle with money anxieties. Sometimes our fears are warranted, yet often they are not. People with more than enough, an ample plenty, often suffer from deep-seated money anxieties. When they worry about money, they are more likely to hold on tightly to what they have, and less likely to use their wealth to help those in need. In the end, their money anxieties deprive them of the joy of connecting to and helping others.

When people who are afraid cultivate a sense of gratitude, their fears diminish and their confidence increases. Gratitude opens their eyes and allows them to see the world more clearly. A sense of gratitude helps them acknowledge how fortunate they are, see all of their abundance and encourages them to reach out to those who are truly struggling. Gratitude opens their eyes and their hearts to the joy of connecting with others, the joy of giving and the joy of making a difference.

Gratitude is about far more than our personal happiness. It is a virtue that opens our eyes to the world around us, helps us connect with others in constructive ways and helps us look to the future with strength and confidence. Gratitude is at the foundation of building supportive communities that empower each of us to be our best. It has the power to not only make our lives better, but to make the world in which we live a better place.

And isn't that what we all want?

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