"Declaring our gratitude helps me to remember what the ‘good times’ are really all about: family, friends, good food, craic agus ceol and bright sunny days."
2013 will go down in my memory as the year when everything was right on schedule. From early Spring (even with that cold spell in April) the seasons have followed each other in an orderly fashion, the highlight being the most spectacularly sunny, hot summer in thirty years. As I sit writing this, the day is crisp and bright. Winter’s frosty breath has us wearing several layers during the day and snuggling under extra duvets at night, which is only proper order. The landscape is sleeping and the fire is lit in the morning. Christmas feels right on time this year. After five years of freezing, flooding and wet, cold summers I feel truly thankful.
Thankfulness is not a very highly rated virtue in the world today. The materialism of our consumer society, coupled with the ‘me-centred’ focus of modern Western culture can make us feel that we are somehow entitled to whatever good things we have. The high premium placed on individual ambition and achievement only reinforces the idea that we have a right to the ‘good life’ while driving us to want more and more. Unfortunately, rather than fulfilling us, this attitude often leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. There is little time to be thankful in the high pressure race to achieve more, to buy more, to accomplish more. Our aspirational agenda leaves us unable to enjoy what we have, and unwilling to feel truly thankful. Gratitude can seem a little old fashioned.
And yet, recent studies have shown that gratitude is indeed the highest virtue, not just in a spiritual sense, but as a way to health and happiness. What makes people happy has only recently been the subject of scientific studies. Until around 2000, most psychological studies were concerned with stress, distress and all those things, which make us miserable and unwell. Once the focus changed, however, it became clear that achievement and material gain where not the main ingredients of a happy, healthy life. In fact, they don’t really feature much once the basic needs of food and shelter are established. What the studies have revealed is that being thankful is an essential part of wellbeing. Gratitude is what makes us happy, even when what we are thankful for is undeserved, or indeed unearned. In fact, there is evidence that gratitude is uniquely important in generating happiness. Though it makes sense that people who are grateful feel more satisfied with their life, work and relationships, those who are naturally grateful also cope better with stress, depression and all the challenges and obstacles that life throws at us.
In a recent experiment people were asked to think about someone who had made a difference in their life. They were then asked to write a letter thanking them and to read it out loud. The participants were tested before and after and-you guessed it — their happiness scores increased significantly after being thankful. Scores were highest when the participants called the person in question and read them the letter. In addition, this increase in happiness lasted. Several months after writing the letter, people still scored higher than they had before the experiment.
Another experiment worked with people who were suffering from insomnia. Going through a mental checklist of events, or people they were thankful for was more effective in helping them get a good night’s sleep than any other method. Even being thankful for a sunny day, or a smile from a stranger made a difference.
Maybe that’s why I like celebrating Thanksgiving Day so much. Before we tuck into the turkey and pumpkin pie, we go around the table and each person says a few words about what they are thankful for in the past year. It’s light and informal, but it really marks the occasion. It also gets me in the right mind set for the upcoming Christmas. The festive season can be rife with stress, particularly in these difficult economic times. Declaring our gratitude helps me to remember what the ‘good times’ are really all about: family, friends, good food, craic agus ceol and bright sunny days. One hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Roman philosopher Cicero wrote: ‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.’ How right he was! As we pass into the darkest days of the year, may your Christmas be full of the light of gratitude and may you have plenty to be thankful for. See you again in 2014…
Tina Pisco’s novels, poetry and ‘A West Cork Life’ are available on Amazon or from www.tinapisco.com.