The Science of Thanksgiving
Research has proven that Thanksgiving is good for your health. Now, before you decide that I’ve lost my mind, please realize that I am not suggesting that science has suddenly discovered that gluttony, being a couch potato, and watching hours of television (parades and football games) are good for your health (don’t we wish). Others may think I am confused as Thanksgiving is more connected to history than science, while others are wondering what any of this has to do with nonprofit organizations and governance.
Well, actually I hope to illustrate how intimately connected and applicable they really are. I am not referring to the actual holiday we call Thanksgiving, but rather what the holiday symbolizes -- the spirit of gratitude and gratefulness. The science is the Research Project on Gratitude and Thanksgiving led by Dr. Robert A. Emmons, University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, University of Miami. They ‘discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits’ psychological, physical, and interpersonal.”
Dr. Emmons began studying gratitude in 1998 and in 2007 authored a book on the subject, Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Here’s one excerpt:
“Our groundbreaking research has shown that grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. We have discovered that a person who experiences gratitude is able to cope more effectively with everyday stress, may show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, and may recover more quickly from illness and benefit from greater physical health. Our research has led us to conclude that experiencing gratitude leads to increased feelings of connectedness, improved relationships, and even altruism.”
WOW! You may want to read that paragraph again. This is not the text from a motivational speaker or notes from a minister’s sermon, this is the summary of scientific research. Gratitude is a highly effective coping mechanism. Let me remind you that this book was published in 2007, before the “great recession”. Every nonprofit leader and organization I know has had a dramatic increase in stress over the last two plus years. Dr. Emmons found that gratitude is one key that helps you cope more effectively with stress.
Emmons also observed and documented that “Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, it transforms.”
- Has your gratitude increased or decreased over the past two years?
- Have you been so overwhelmed with the increased demands for your services and drains on your resources that you’ve been too busy or distracted to be grateful?
Emmons suggested that gratitude includes two stages. Stage one is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. It’s a positive recognition that all things considered, “life is good and has elements that make it worth living.”
The second stage to gratitude is “recognizing that the source of goodness lies at least partially outside the self.” In other words, gratitude is outward directed, we are not the object of our gratitude, someone else is.
Accordingly then, gratitude requires humility and the willingness to recognize along with Emmons, “(a) that one has been the beneficiary of someone’s kindness, (b) that the benefactor has intentionally provided a benefit, often incurring some personal cost, and (c) that the benefit has value in the eyes of the beneficiary.” That certainly covers most, if not all, nonprofit organizations.
Most nonprofits benefit from the kindness or generosity of a host of others including funders, donors, board members, volunteers, foundations (community, corporate, and private), community and civic organizations, and religious organizations. They could not do what they do apart from their network of supporters. If you’re involved in the leadership of a nonprofit, either as a staff or board member, why not take advantage of this time of year to express your gratitude to those that make your work possible.
If you happen to serve on the board of a nonprofit organization, take some time to thank those that serve on staff. They are usually overworked and underpaid and may feel overlooked and unnoticed; a kind word of encouragement or small act of gratitude may refresh their spirits, renew their energy, and help recharge their batteries for the busy weeks ahead. Also take time to recognize those who volunteer their time and energies to help advance the mission.
Ben Stein (actor, comedian, and economist) quipped, “I cannot tell you anything that, in a few minutes, will tell you how to be rich. But I can tell you how to feel rich, which is far better, let me tell you firsthand, than being rich. Be grateful...It’s the only totally reliable get-rich-quick scheme.” Take time today and this week to express your gratitude to someone else for the work they do or for the contributions they make to support the work you do - you’ll be healthier and happier for it.
Please share creative ways you’ve seen or found to express gratitude.