The Roman philosopher Cicero called gratitude the mother of all virtues. From patriotism to friendship, he said, all that goes into a good society is rooted in thanks.
Such a simple word, thanks. So easy to say that you’d think it would get out more. But the mother of all virtues, like so many other mothers, tends to be taken for granted. We check in on it once a year, maybe, at Thanksgiving. Otherwise, we don’t call, we don’t write.
We should revisit that attitude, if only out of enlightened self-interest. Over the past decade and a half, a growing body of academic research has borne Cicero out.
Corny as it may sound, all sorts of social benefits arise from the consistent counting of blessings; just ask Robert A. Emmons, the UC Davis psychology professor whose work on thankfulness has spawned a burgeoning field of gratitude studies.
People who jot down five things a week for which they feel grateful report a 25% increase in feelings of happiness, for instance. They get 33% more exercise, suffer 10% fewer stress-related illnesses and enjoy a half-hour more sleep each night than control groups.
Teenagers with a grateful attitude are 10 times less likely to start smoking. Grateful adults live as much as 7 years longer. People grateful for favors are more likely to pass good deeds forward.
Gratitude can even pay off for impulse-prone holiday shoppers: In a study published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, people were twice as likely to defer gratification if they had first recalled, in writing, a time when they felt gratitude.
Regularly counting blessings “magnifies the good things in a person’s life,” says Emmons. That magnification in turn creates a feeling of abundance that makes us feel more connected and generous.
And that builds on itself: With enough practice, he says, gratitude for family or health or turkey with stuffing evolves into an appreciation of less self-centered gifts — the air we breathe, the water we count on, the political institutions that don’t work without our participation. The sacrifices of those who have made life so much easier for us. This, in turn, incites the desire to help make society better, to give back.
These are not grateful times. The power of fear compels us. Commerce and politics conspire to tell us that there isn’t enough, that we aren’t enough. But their warnings wouldn’t be so shrill if they didn’t have another side to them.
Just in this century, 30 years have been added to the average American life span. Once-terrifying diseases like polio and smallpox have been all but conquered. Violent crime is at an all-time low. Human beings who were once punished for how they looked or who they loved are regarded more fairly.
There’s power in counting those kinds of blessings, and not just on the last Thursday in November. Let’s make the mother of all virtues into the mother of all habits. This and every week, thank someone.