Experts say gratitude can ease troubled economic times

By Janet I. Tu

The Seattle Times


SEATTLE — For Margee Engle, a liquor-store clerk, it boils down to this: "I’m emphatically grateful for my job."


Emily Cohen, a Seattle University student, feels grateful for so many things — family, friends, the opportunity to get an education, rain — that she needs to express it by doing community service.

And Rabbi James Mirel of Temple B’nai Torah makes a point of focusing on his blessings via a photograph of his family that he’s put in his bathroom.

"I don’t have to put it out where everybody else can see" it, he said, "but I see it every day."

In these painful economic times, it can be hard to think in terms of gratitude. But hard times are precisely when having an overall outlook of gratitude is most helpful and needed, experts say. There’s something about consciously and regularly taking stock of what we’re grateful for, and about cultivating and expressing gratitude, that helps individuals — and society — weather stress.

"While it may be counterintuitive, it’s more appropriate and in some ways more spiritually uplifting to be grateful in a time of need than in a time of plenty," Mirel said.

"When everything’s going well, then gratitude comes easily and may even be self-serving and self-satisfied. But when things are really hard, that’s when you can really experience gratitude."

Especially around Thanksgiving, platitudes on thankfulness abound. And voicing such banalities around people who’ve lost their house or retirement savings may, frankly, be annoying.

Still, Mirel believes hard times help people recognize what’s really important, and not take for granted things like having a job.


"While we don’t want anybody to suffer needlessly, as a nation, this economic downturn may have some very transformative side effects — recognizing that having more is not the road to happiness," he said.

A grateful attitude is not only helpful during tough times, it’s essential, believes Robert Emmons, a University of California-Davis professor who specializes in the psychology of gratitude.

"It is precisely under crisis conditions where gratitude achieves its maximal power," he said.

Emmons found that the most grateful individuals often have experienced the most loss. It’s not that they feel grateful for losing a home or a job, but that they choose to maintain a "fundamentally enduring orientation that says . . . underlying goodness exists in the universe and therefore I will be grateful in spite of circumstances," he said. That orientation forms a psychological immune system.

In his book, "Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier," Emmons suggests practices to cultivate such a mindset. One is gratitude journaling — writing down what we are grateful for. The key is to take time to savor those things as "gifts," and not just dutifully jot them down on a list.

David DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, says gratitude has a societal benefit as well. When people feel grateful, they tend to help others more.

"If you’re feeling grateful, it’s kind of a social booster shot," DeSteno said. "And you pass it on."

That’s exactly what motivates Cohen, the Seattle University student.


She takes time each day to sit quietly, identifying people or moments that she’s grateful for, "not letting that go unacknowledged."


She sees such people and moments as gifts, and tries to honor them by serving others, organizing students to cook at soup kitchens or work on art projects with seniors.

"It’s a way of responding to this feeling that there’s so much to be grateful for and I can’t just sit here and not act on it," Cohen said.

Similarly, Engle, the clerk, was inspired to become more active in her union after it sent her to Pittsburgh in October to help with the Obama campaign.

There, in the course of canvassing, she heard from people struggling to hold onto jobs, homes and health insurance.

"Seeing other people trying so hard to keep what they had in life gave me perspective, for sure," she said.

At KapKa Cooperative K-2 School in Seattle’s Woodland Park neighborhood, cultivating gratitude is part of a Thanksgiving lesson — along with shopping for, cooking and delivering meals to seniors.


The kids learn about the history of Thanksgiving, but also about the greater meaning behind it.

They talk about "being thankful for having enough to eat," said Elonna Marci-Salmon, a parent of a KapKa student and coordinator of the project. "And in this instance, being able to share it."


(c) 2008, The Seattle Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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