A holistic perspective of the link between Thankfulness and Happiness

When we just find something that we missed a while ago, we say “Thank God, we found it” or “Thank you” to the one who found it. We cannot express the bliss we feel at that moment. So with that one experience can we infer that thankfulness produces happiness?

Thankfulness is felt when an outside entity, does something positive or helpful that we don’t expect from them.

A school aged boy, forgot his pencil box at home and that is the first day of the school term. Imagine how he feels when his bench-mate (whom he does not know until then), saves him from class teacher by giving him a pencil to write before she makes her rounds in the class. Since, his bench-mate helped him in the moment of crisis, he gets relieved, and a new friendship develops between these two. So if this friendship continues and series of such events happen, it could develop that child’s social relationships accordingly. The desire to help others is generated within, the moment his “bench-mate” helped him for the first time. Here thankfulness generates happiness, also this example indicates another form of thankfulness, that is, “gratitude”.

Thankfulness has two parameters, one is “feeling (affect-covert behaviour)” and another is “action (overt behaviour).”

As a covert behaviour, thankfulness begins when you perceive that someone other than you did great things for you. In simple terms, accepting or being aware of the good deeds of an outsider is thankfulness. Many times, we forget to show our thankfulness to those who helped us. So when we react in overt behavioural terms (verbal or action), it produces relaxing sensation. Its synonymous, ‘gratitude’ is studied rigorously in positive psychology, which aims for edifying humans to live with authentic happiness. An eminent researcher on the topic of gratitude, Dr. Robert Emmons explained that gratitude is a two stage process,

1) Acknowledging good in one’s life

2) Recognizing that the good is outside of one’s life (“what is gratitude”, 2017)

Remember, that thankfulness is accepting the reality and gratitude is appreciation of the thankful act in action. When the perception of thankfulness of a deed is at conscious level, gratitude goes from the conscious level to the behavioural level (meaningful action).

From Cambridge definition, happiness itself seems to be an integral part of thankfulness. But is it so? Let us see diagram wise explanation of this concept

Explanation of the above Diagram

When we receive some help (in deed or word of appreciation), we feel the value of it. If we perceive the event or deed’s significance is normal or brought minimal change to our existing life, we just say thank you. There it ends. But if the deed is perceived to be of great value, then immediately thankful feelings get generated but due to its greater value the appreciation becomes feeling of gratitude. Depending on our personality and other circumstances (benefactor is not alive), many would not be able to express appreciation of their deeds. So, in such cases people will try other ways to express their gratitude by helping those, who are needy. We hear stories of successful people who grew up in orphanages. These stories have narration of some philanthropic person aiding them for their education. So when they grow up, unable to repay their gratitude to their benefactor, will redirect that help to other orphans or needy in the same way, or if possible even more than that. But for some it is possible to express their gratitude directly. Whatever the case may be, these acts will lead to long lasting happiness. Here we can agree with Sonja Lyubomirsky( 2017, Nov 1) who stated that

“Happiness Activity No. 1: Expressing Gratitude”

“The expression of gratitude is a kind of meta-strategy for achieving happiness.”

Thankfulness and its relation to happiness:

Thankfulness – expresses looking into one’s own core and conveying the feeling of how much the activity or behaviour of others effected their life and how significantly, to those who acted upon.

Thankfulness makes an individual retain his individuality as a gentle being.

Thankfulness shown by one individual makes the observers develop goodwill about that person.

This was observed in a study on 415 pre-adolescent (9-11 years) in Vancouver. Two groups of students were given tasks of showing 3 acts of kindness (pro-social group e.g., helping mother in her daily chores) and visit 3 places (whereabouts group e.g., shopping centre) for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks the researchers found that both groups have “increased in positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction” and also peer acceptance. The researchers concludes that “Our study demonstrates that doing good for others benefits the givers, earning them not only improved well-being but also popularity.” (Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S, 2012)

Thankfulness expressed makes others happy

In European Countries, where individuality is given much importance in social interaction, people use words expressing their thankfulness to those whom they interact with, irrespective of their professions (like plumber, sales person, toilet cleaning person and waste carrying personnel). They express their thankfulness for the services these professionals render without whom their daily life would be messy. For example, if one sees garbage collector they would say thank you for your services. This thankfulness, shown in words by the recipient of their service makes these professionals happy. Here expressing thankfulness produces happiness which in turn ignites enthusiasm to work more productively.

There was an interesting quotation of thankfulness, which agrees with the above explanation.

“Thankfulness is pretty much a superhero in the world of emotions.”

Along with fostering employee happiness, thankfulness has been shown to increase employee productivity!

A study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that when managers told a group of their call-centre employees that they were thankful for the employees’ work, the number of calls made that week was 50% higher than for the group that did not receive thanks. Letting your employees know that you are thankful for them can make all of you happier and more productive. It’s pretty amazing how a simple act of thanks can make your employees feel happy and motivated, and isn’t that something we all want in an organization? (Critical Metrics, 2017, November 17)”

Thankfulness makes one lighter and happy internally.

How often are we able to convey our thankfulness to those, who are dearest to us, like our parents? No. We can count it on our fingertips, when we expressed our thankfulness to them. But if we start to show our thankfulness in deeds rather than words, we feel like a lot of load has been lifted of us. We experience relaxation and lightness that we never experienced back. Professor Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology, often uses the term authentic happiness. He emphasized that Happiness is the experience of genuine pleasance which is unique to each individual’s corresponding living circumstances, personality, use of virtues and characteristics etc.

An article of Harvard Medical school magazine cited the work where Prof. Martin SeligmanT. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C, gave weekly assignment to 411 people to prepare a letter of gratitude addressing to person they are thankful to. They were told to write in 300 words of the kind deeds for which they are thankful and read it aloud in the benefactor’s presence. Results indicated increase in happiness scores of these participants and this effect in their happiness remained the same for a month. (“Giving thanks”, n.d; Teresa Kleffner, n.d)

Thankfulness gives deeper understanding of one’s responsibility in the society and installs pro social behaviour in the benefited person.

Let’s start with an example, you met with an accident, and you have rare blood group and you need blood transmission. No donors are available. Then, suddenly one individual comes up to help you. Since, you could not react immediately, when you are okay you thank him, but the thankfulness becomes appreciation for that gentleman and gratitude develops about such deeds. So, there is a great likability that, in future, if you come across similar situation like, someone else needs blood, definitely you will move forward to help the needy. Your responsibility of sharing the rare blood to other humans brings in need of it, creates chained pro-social reaction. (LEIF HASS, n.d).

Barriers/inhibitors to Thankfulness

•Hectic chores of our daily lives, make the positive events get suppressed from conscious awareness level.

• Hardness of heart due to problematic relationships.

• Ill-developed personality patterns of individuals –criminals and some other negative and bitter individuals in society.

• Those who delve in rumination most of the time are not thankful. In fact they must be made to recognize the thankful events in their lives.

How to foster thankfulness as a means to propagate happiness?

1. Three good things in life

Martin E P Seligman, Tracy A Steen and Acacia Parks (2004) in an article on ‘balanced psychology and full life’ explained that happiness can be boosted with exercises like three good things in life. They stated that:

“The ‘good things in life’ exercise provides an example of an efficacious intervention. Designed to increase positive emotion about the past, this exercise requires individuals to record, every day for a week, three good things that happened to them each day and why those good things occurred. After completing this exercise, individuals were happier and less depressed at the three-month follow-up. “

2. Practising Savouring daily life activities like waking up from bed, staying healthy, eating food and mindful walking.
An interesting explanation of what Savouring is, is listed below:
In the world of Positive Psychology, savouring is best described by the model created by Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff that defines savouring as “noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life – the positive counterpart to coping. Savouring is more than pleasure – it also involves mindfulness and “conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” (positive psychology News, 2018)

In simple terms, while eating a cookie, be mindful of the process of eating (observe what your mouth is doing). Feel the smoothness of the fillers in the cookie (like chocolate, butter etc.), crunchiness of it. Then you will be happy and thankful that you got to eat it. Hence, savouring develops attention towards small things in life which make us live with content and true happiness.

Savouring can even be protective factor for depressive symptoms. (Ford, J.G., Klibert, J.J., Tarantino, N., & Lamis, D.A. (2017)

Thankfulness can lead to happiness when it turns into gratitude. This can be achieved through positive psychology techniques, bringing new perspectives and opportunities!

About the Author

Dr Deepthi Balla
Educationalist and Psychologist.

 Dr Deepthi Balla holds a PhD in Psychology. She is certified in Resilience Practitioner Program, United Kingdom and also did Positive Psychol

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