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Social Sciences

Are We Really Grateful?

By Gregg Sangillo

Most Americans practice gratitude at Thanksgiving, but psychology professor Anthony Ahrens says we might benefit from practicing it more frequently.

Most Americans practice gratitude at Thanksgiving, but psychology professor Anthony Ahrens says we might benefit from practicing it more frequently.

Psychology professor Anthony Ahrens has been teaching at American University since 1987. One of his primary interests is gratitude, which is especially relevant for most Americans celebrating Thanksgiving this week.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t extensive gratitude research until as late as 2002, and there is still much for academics to explore. In an edited interview, Ahrens talks about the latest research and ponders what it means to be thankful.

GS: What does the latest research on gratitude show?

Ahrens: “We’re interested in asking if practicing gratitude helps, and why it helps. One of our doctoral students in clinical psychology, Kate Stewart, thinks that it might help because when we reflect on something, and become grateful for it, it brings a sense of meaning. There are some studies showing that if you practice gratitude, you end up having some benefits. University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman did a study where once a day for a week, people recorded three good things that happened that day, and why they happened; other people wrote about their childhood memories. If you look out six months later, after just that one week of exercise, the people who were recording the good things were happier than the people who spent the week thinking about their childhood memories. One of the projects I’m working on is asking whether there’s a difference between the feeling of being grateful to someone, and being grateful for something. Some gratitude prepares you to find and tie yourself to good relationship partners. And I’ve got a little bit of evidence that when you’re grateful for something, what you want to do is celebrate.”

GS: Do people feel more gratitude during Thanksgiving?

Ahrens: “I haven’t seen any research. If I’m betting, I’m guessing people are all over the place. For some, it’s a time to reflect, so a lot of the battle with gratitude is just taking the time to really notice what is there and what you have. But I’m confident that for some people the holidays are difficult, that family situations often are tense, and it may be hard to be grateful.”

GS: Are Americans generally ungrateful? Despite tough economic times, this is a comparatively wealthy nation. Yet people seem frustrated.

Ahrens: “We do know that, in the past several decades, narcissism has been on the rise in the United States. So people have been more focused on themselves as the center of the universe. And I got interested in gratitude because I’m wondering whether gratitude is a way to combat that. There’s no real good data at this point on gratitude and narcissism, but I’m interested in that in the long run. There’s certainly a lot of unhappiness in the country. There’s some evidence that depression is on the rise. Just because you have more on an objective level, it doesn’t mean you experience having more. So there’s an argument that with the interest in materialism, which is often prevalent in the States, a lot of people are on what’s talked about as the ‘hedonic treadmill.’ That you work to get something and it’s great for five minutes, and then you have to take the next step on the treadmill.”

GS: So is gratitude just a temporary emotion for most people?

Ahrens: “Some of the first work back in 2002 is on the ‘grateful disposition’ from psychology professors Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons. Are there just some people who are more grateful? There’s some evidence of that, and that disposition goes along with positive emotions. One of the big questions is whether you can really build a grateful personality. If you’re someone who right now is not very grateful, can you practice gratitude and just make that reflexive? There’s not good research there. But everything I know about how people work says yes, that should be possible.”