November 23rd, 2011
05:00 AM ET
By Ansley Roan, Special to CNN
A mother in Missouri updates her Facebook status with something she’s grateful for each day. A doctor in Boston makes a gratitude list before bed. A priest in New York ends his day with thanks and reflection.
They have never met. Their lives are very different. But all of them are grateful.
Rhianna Mathias posts her gratitude status updates in part because she’s now a mother after a struggle with infertility. Dr. Aditi Nerurkar keeps a gratitude journal because it helps her de-stress. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, ends his days with an exercise called the examination of conscience, which begins with gratitude.
Their choice to focus on gratitude and their different reasons for doing so suggest new popularity for an ancient sentiment.
Each year at Thanksgiving, many Americans share what they’re grateful for or bow their heads in prayer to give thanks. But there are growing signs that a renewed focus on gratitude has more staying power than the Thanksgiving leftovers.
Many of those who discern a gratitude trend say it's a response to two big developments. One is what some experts call “an explosion” in academic research on the practical benefits of gratitude. The other is economic hard times, which appear to have provoked a greater appreciation for the basic things in life, like family and food. And some say the trend speaks to something deeper, reflecting a crisis of purpose in modern life.
“There is more emphasis on gratitude,” said Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project, ” a bestselling memoir about her efforts to have a happier life.
“There’s a surge in people who are facing some kind of major challenge, like losing their job," she said. "These are catalysts for self-reflection. People remind themselves of what really matters.”
The October unemployment rate was 9 percent and even many of those who have jobs have seen salaries stagnate or shrink. Median household income fell last year, down 1.4 percent from 2007.
The slump may be provoking many Americans to rethink priorities, says Carson Mencken, a Baylor University sociology professor and director of The Baylor Religion Survey.
“About one third of Americans feel very anxious right now, which is high, but not quite as high as we thought it might be,” he said. “People aren’t panicking. That conclusion would certainly be consistent with the idea that people are taking stock.”
The 2010 Baylor survey showed no significant change in the number of people who pray or believe in God, although it did not directly address gratitude.
Forty eight percent of the 1,100 Americans with fulltime jobs surveyed by Wayne Hochwarter, a professor at Florida State University College of Business, have a greater appreciation of family because of the economic malaise.
Hochwarter's 2010 survey found that 49% feel the economic situation helped them appreciate people more than things.
A wave of academic research has offered evidence of the important role gratitude plays in well-being and relationships.
This year, the John Templeton Foundation awarded a $5.9 million grant to the University of California, Davis for a research project entitled "Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude."
Robert Emmons, a psychology professor and recipient of the grant, has been at the forefront of gratitude research, which has blossomed in the last decade. Academics often find the general public to be increasingly receptive to that work.
“When I used to use words like gratitude, compassion or awe to audiences, I'd see many raised eyebrows,” said Dacher Keltner, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “Born To Be Good: The Science of A Meaningful Life.” “Now as the science matures on these topics, people are very open to these themes.”
And many people say the act of giving thanks enriches their lives, pure and simple.
Mathias, the Missouri mom, says she appreciates her life with husband Nick Watkins and their baby, Arlo.
“I am thankful for small moments on Saturday mornings that make me feel big things: raw sugar and cream and coffee in my cup, Nick making breakfast in his plaid pajama pants, Arlo's face painted in wild smears of self-served yogurt, and talking about our little family's holiday plans,” she posted on Facebook earlier this month.
Mathias got the idea for her status updates from her friend Michelle Filson-Smith, a social worker in Fredericksburg, Virginia who wanted to focus on gratitude instead of her father’s diagnosis with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, for which there is no cure.
Filson-Smith got the idea from another friend. Five people she knows are posting daily gratitude status updates this month.
Their various reasons for doing so illustrate an impulse that goes beyond reacting to economic instability, said Giacomo Bono, an adjunct psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who studies gratitude and children.
“The reason gratitude seems more popular today, and why I think there’s a need for it, is because there’s also a crisis of purpose,” Bono said. “We’re dividing our attention, and there’s never enough time."
"Gratitude has an internal psychological benefit, but also a social one," he said. "The more we have strong relationships, the better our quality of life. Gratitude and purpose are intimately linked because of that.”
At the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NewYork, which hosts workshops to “awaken the best in the human spirit,” the staff reports an increase in visitors seeking a more purposeful life, which they say includes feeling grateful.
“Gratitude is also a significant dimension of yoga,” said Carla Goldstein, director of Omega’s Women’s Institute. “As the practice of yoga has exploded during the past decade, many people have built it into their yoga practice, even if they don't call it gratitude."
While gratitude is a perennial topic in religion publishing, today’s books differ from those being published 10 years ago, according to Marcia Z. Nelson, associate religion editor for Publishers Weekly.
“Since 2008, I’ve seen many religion books that are almost a prophetic cry against greed and excess,” she said. “The two things are related, ‘Be grateful for what you have.’ ‘You have more than enough.’ But I don’t see the same focus on gratitude, so much as being content.”
Research shows that feelings like gratitude and contentment don't always come easily.
“There’s something called the negativity bias,” said Rubin, the author. “Anything that’s negative catches our attention better than things that are positive. So having some kind of strategy can remind you of things to be grateful for.”
Dr. Nerurkar, the physician who keeps a gratitude journal, said it has improved her outlook and her relationships.
“It’s like a paradigm shift,” she said. “It gives me the ability to zoom out and give thanks. It helps me view my life with the lens of abundance, rather than scarcity.”
Martin, the Jesuit priest and author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” acknowledged the new interest in gratitude but noted that incorporating it into spiritual practice is hardly new.
The examination of conscience he practices each night was popularized by St. Ignatius, who lived in the 1500s.
“Jesus spoke about gratitude constantly,” Martin said. “One example is his parable of the 10 lepers who were made clean and only one came back to say thanks. That’s the avatar of holy gratitude.”
Although the interest in gratitude doesn’t indicate a religious revival, the concept is common across faiths, Bono said.
“Long ago, the Buddha recognized the importance of gratitude,” said Arnold Kozak, a psychologist and author of the blog “Mindfulness Matters.” “If you are not living with gratitude it’s impossible to live an awakened life.”
While it won't make serious problems go away, Dr. Nerurkar said, it can help change your attitude. “On a bad day," she said, "sometimes I’m just grateful for a soothing cup of tea.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.