This past Thanksgiving has an enduring message about gratitude that many of us take for granted. Some of us find ourselves absorbed in it for a short while, usually until the holiday is over. But is there a connection between gratitude and stemming the tide of aging, and living longer, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s? Is there any science behind the benefits of an attitude of gratitude?
The short answer is a big “YES.” And it is drawn from one unique, widely applauded study that led to another.
The first, started in 1986 at the University of Minnesota and for a time at the University of Kentucky, and continuing as this is written, known as the “Nun Study,” used a scientifically reliable example: 678 Sisters of Notre Dame at seven different convents, where all had similar environmental influences and lifestyles.
Stated in simple terms, it included the scrutiny of autobiographical essays the nuns wrote in the 1930s when joining their order at the average age of 22, with regular medical exams since then, year after year, allowing researchers to prove that the more upbeat emotions the nuns expressed in their autobiographical notes, the more likely they were to be alive and well over 60 years later. There is a cogent message here for all young people today.
One compelling finding was that those nuns with a positive, emotional outlook on personality tests had a far lower incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease, and were more likely than pessimists to be alive even 30 years later.
This Nun Study has fostered an entirely new field of study known as “Gratitude Research.” Here we find that positive emotions are defined as contentment, gratitude, happiness, love and hope. Consider one such study, reported by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California/Berkeley, that showed how an attitude of thankfulness can be a major factor in strengthening resilience; of helping us survive painful experience. A study of Vietnam War veterans proves those with higher levels of gratitude actually suffered lower incidence of PTSD.
Greater Good also reports research about thankfulness’ reducing toxic emotions such as resentment, frustration and regret, and even makes depression less likely. It helps people avoid overreacting to negative experiences by seeking revenge.
A sense of gratitude even tends to make people sleep better. It enhances self-respect, makes envy of others less likely, and leads to better relationships. Most interestingly, it has been found that remembering the things we have to be thankful for helps us survive those grim episodes of losing a loved one, or a job, or that fantastic chance we might have had.
Consider the work of another researcher into the benefits of gratitude, Andre Comte-Spoonville, such as his “Short Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Use of Philosophy in Everyday Life” (2002). He explains how gratitude is deeply connected to humility. He tells us further that those who are incapable of gratitude live in vain; they can never be satisfied, fulfilled or happy.
In one way or another, gratitude reminds us, each time we dwell on it, of how dependent we are on others. One of Comte-Spoonville’s most compelling conclusions: “Part of the very essence of gratitude is that we are not the sole creators of what is good in our lives. The egoist is ungrateful because he does not like to acknowledge his debt to others, and gratitude is this acknowledgement.”
So this recent sense of Thanksgiving spirit is worth keeping year round, indeed, for our entire, longer and happier lifetime. We have ample, scientific proof that a lifelong attitude of gratitude, of counting our blessings, and dwelling upon them, is a key to both happiness and health. Now that quote by the ancient Roman Cicero that some of us learned in high school makes more sense: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but a parent of all the others.”
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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