Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Does thanksgiving make us complacent or lazy? Myths about gratitude

We’re not discussing the laziness everyone encounters after a large Thanksgiving meal. The questions we’re asking are: Does gratitude make us complacent or lazy? Can thankfulness be false humility or inappropriate? Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., University of California, Davis, is considered to be the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He addressed several myths and misconceptions that are common. Very few people would argue that gratitude is not a good trait to possess and practice. However, some subtle reservations creep into our thinking.

Is it true that a person who is grateful may not be as motivated to change negative things in the world or improve his life? Would a thankful person tend to accept injustices, rather than attempt to make positive changes? In fact, the opposite is true. Grateful people are actually more successful at reaching their goals and have a greater sense of purpose. In a study conducted by Dr. Emmons and his colleagues, participants who were randomly assigned to keep a gratitude journal exerted more effort toward reaching their goals than those who did not. In another study involving young teens published in Motivation and Emotion, those who were more grateful performed more pro-social activities and had a desire to give back to others.

A second myth addressed by Emmons is one many of us may have thought: gratitude ignores the negativity and pain in life. It seems Pollyannaish, seeing the world with rose-colored glasses of thankfulness, while people all over are suffering. This myth demonstrates a misunderstanding of gratitude. To be thankful, one must recognize a dependence on others, leading to some sense of indebtedness to others or feelings of responsibility to take care of that for which one has received. So, gratitude is not as much ignoring the negative, it is magnifying the positive.

A third myth relates to a phenomenon most of us have seen – the person who appears to be overly-humble, refusing to take credit for his or her own good work. It seems to be false humility. While this may be true of a few people, a study by Dr. Emmons demonstrated that, when people were given a difficult task and given a hint to assist, they acknowledged the benefit of the hint, while also taking credit for their own work. So, it is possible to do both.

Another myth is that it is not appropriate – or is even impossible – to be thankful in the midst of adversity or suffering. A study conducted by Emmons involving subjects with severe neuromuscular disorders were asked to keep a gratitude journal over a two-week period. Not only did these people who were experiencing significant pain find things for which to be thankful, they reported more positive emotions than those in a control group. Furthermore, they felt more optimistic, socially connected, and slept better.

“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 118:1)

Robert Emmons, “Five Myths about Gratitude”, Greater Good, 21 Nov 2013,