(What is..) the one thing I'm most thankful for?
This innocent question has been haunting me.
I typically espouse the benefits of expressing gratitude towards people as the most powerful well-being booster:
- Name the action another person took to benefit you
- Acknowledge the effort they put into it
- Describe how what they did actually helped you.
Scientific research suggests you'll experience a closer sense of connection, greater trust, warm fuzzy feelings, more satisfaction, greater sense of purpose, fewer self-focused stress-inducing thoughts, more meaning in your community, among other perks.
With that, then, for whom am I most thankful? My mother? Of course. My children? Undeniably. My spouse? Yes. My colleagues at work? I wouldn't want to leave them out. Dear friends? Indeed. Strangers that smile generously from behind the wheel as I bike through the crosswalk in front of them? It's the little things. "Friends" who post enviable luxuries, extraordinary privilege and pleasures on social media? When I can avoid social comparison and find vicarious joy -- this is great. People who are unfriendly? If I can find compassion -- yes -- these are my "challenge'"teachers.
I suppose my best answer to this question, the one thing I'm most thankful for, boils up to a pretty big category: other people. People in the world around me who, by definition, are not me, but who are opportunities for me to practice gratitude and be a better person myself.
Homo sapiens are an extraordinarily social species. Our adaptive success lies primarily in the altruistic, collaborative behaviors we're wired to seek. Our health and happiness, research suggests, relies explicitly on time spent socializing with others -- and not feeling lonely [1, 2]. "Very happy people" always have rich support networks, and absence of social support is as much of a health risk as being a lifetime cigarette smoker.
Evolutionary psychologists frame gratitude as a sort of universal social currency -- the interstitial glue that holds communities together as we dynamically and interdependently solve collective-level problems to serve everyone's needs. Biologically, we are equipped with dedicated systems for elements of gratitude:
- Deciphering other peoples' expressions and understanding their speech, points of view, intentions and actions
- Relating these to our own goals, ideals, experiences and actions
- Remembering who's a promising candidate for future cooperation.
Gratitude, science suggests, hones these systems to yield more trusting, accurate, productive, sustainable, and yes, satisfying social interactions. It also calms reflexive "half-full" habits we bring to social interactions like assuming threat and competition, judging ourselves as inadequate, feeling anxious or jumping to worst-case conclusions.
For example, despite common perceptions about the unanimity of the human drive to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, studies show that brain systems that signal pleasure also promote generosity, connection and gratitude -- and that pain signaling regions are sensitive to being left out [3,4]. We feel more joy in giving resources and emotional support to others than in being self-serving, relish more in success from cooperation than solo effort, and find more meaning in ideas and experiences that transcend self-interest. Further, the same areas that register bodily harm fire away when we're excluded from a game. In fairness, we do need to eat, drink, be warm and avoid and recall what (or who) is dangerous, but for those of us not in constant danger, gratitude enables the everyday health-bestowing perks of social experiences.
Lacking gratitude, people realize fewer opportunities to feel pleasure and meaning in life. Being grateful, either by lucky circumstance or deliberate effort strengthens one's ability to satisfy the basic human need to be social; it ties together nice feelings, other people and less focus on things that make us feel stressed.
Living in a mid-sized university city as a mother of three and someone who teaches as part of my work, I encounter lots of people everyday. The way I see it, each person, loved or unknown, virtual or face-to-face, ideologically aligned or dumbfoundingly different, is an opportunity for gratitude. The easy ones are bread and butter -- thank my mom for babysitting, thank my kids for making me play and laugh, thank my spouse for sweeping the floor, and the hard ones -- thank the snarky critic for helping me practice emotional resilience, critical thinking and non-violent communication -- are wind sprints.
From where I can see, whenever I can meet people with gratitude, it's good for all of us, and me -- so thank you -- fellow people.
This blog post is part of a series for HuffPost Gratitude, entitled 'The One Thing I'm Most Thankful For.' To see all the other posts in the series, click here To contribute, submit your 500 - 800 word blogpost to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Ed Diener & Martin Seligman, 2002, Very Happy People, Psychological Science, 13, 81
 McWilliams LA, Bailey SJ., 2010, 'Associations between adult attachment ratings and health conditions: evidence from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,' Health Psychology, Jul;29(4):446-53.
 William Harbaugh et. al., (2007) Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations, Science, 316: 1622.
 Tristin Inagaki & Naomi Eisenberg., (2012) Neural Correlates of Giving Support to a Loved One, Psychosomatic Medicine 74:3-7.