By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
The holiday season is here again — GOOD TIMES!!! However, for many this time of year is filled with sadness, anxiety, and/or depression. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Research from Harvard Medical School suggests there’s something you can do that will actually lift your spirits, and it’s built right into the holiday — being thankful.
According to a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, gratitude is a positive emotion that can arise when you acknowledge: (1) that you have goodness in your life; and (2) that other people (or higher powers, if you believe in them) have helped you achieve that goodness. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.
Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. In other words, the sources of the good things “lie at least partially outside the self,” said Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis.
Research by Dr. Emmons and Mike McCullough of the University of Miami has set the stage for much of the research on gratitude. Their study, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens” (2003), found that gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily hassles or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (whether positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on hassles.
So if you’d like to be happier, the study suggests that you keep a “Gratitude Journal,” in which you regularly write down things for which you are grateful. This can help us go through our days with greater appreciation, taking fewer blessings for granted. You can use a formal gratitude journal or simply set aside a few minutes at regular intervals to write down in any convenient place five (or more) things you’re grateful for — large or small.
For example, an item might be an uplifting conversation, a heartfelt compliment from a friend or family member, a book you loved, a beautiful view, a challenging game where you performed well, a kind word from a stranger, an event at work, a treasured possession — whatever occurs to you. As you write, be specific, and take the time to relive the sensations you felt as you remember what each occurrence meant to you.
Of course, some items may repeat, but keep the list fresh. Psychologists used to recommend doing this every day, but a recent study suggested that it might be more effective to try the exercise once a week instead, perhaps because it feels less repetitive and therefore more engaging. Although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.
Gretchen Schmelzer, a psychologist in Philadelphia, said, “Gratitude allows us to look at what we do have and to feel abundance.” After breaking both legs in a hiking accident, she used gratitude exercises to avoid spiraling into negative thoughts. While healing in a wheelchair for six weeks, she told herself each day to “be thankful for what you can do — and not let yourself focus on what you can’t do.”
If you find that journaling doesn’t suit you, find another approach that does. The study says that you can speak or silently contemplate your blessings instead of writing them down; or make a mental note whenever something happens that deserves your gratitude. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude. Incorporate your thankfulness however it feels natural. Just make it a habit.
Now, there are some Rafu Shimpo readers who don’t mind being miserable. So, here’s another reason why you should be grateful — it’s good for your health. Both physical and mental. In a 2022 study of people ages 65 and older, those with higher levels of gratitude had better cognitive function and greater volume in areas of the brain involved in processing emotion and memory.
Cultivating gratitude may also help us deal with common forms of psychological distress, such as anxiety or depression. Other studies have looked at how being grateful can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
What’s more, when analyzing people’s dispositions, researchers have found that those who are more prone to experience gratitude in their daily lives have lower levels of depression and sleep better. Gratitude has also been associated with lower blood pressure, and, in one pilot study, higher levels of heart rate variability, a marker of well-being.
But, according to a New York Times article, “Gratitude Really Is Good for You” (June 8, 2023), “feeling it [gratitude] is only half the equation.” According to Philip Watkins, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University and the author of “Gratitude and the Good Life,” “EXPRESSING gratitude is equally important to reap the benefits of this emotion.” [emphasis added]
According to research, “Those positive effects can be enhanced further by telling a person who has been helpful to you how grateful you are,” said Sara Algoe, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Multiple studies have shown that expressing gratitude to acquaintances, co-workers, friends, or romantic partners can offer a relationship “boost” and “helps bind us more closely.”
If you’re a parent, chances are you have insisted that your children write thank-you notes. You know that expressing thanks for gifts received is a valuable way to nurture the qualities of gratitude and appreciation. As an adult, you may have the thank-you note (or email or call) down pat, but there’s a benefit to going deeper.
“Going deeper?” you ask. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a gratitude letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. For example, “Dear Grandpa, thanks for taking me to the ballgame.” Instead, try “Dear Grandpa, thanks for taking me to my very first Dodger game. It was an experience I’ll remember for a lifetime.”
Martin Seligman and colleagues tested the impact of various positive psychology practices on 411 people. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for an act of kindness, participants exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores (and a decrease in scores on a depression scale) immediately afterward.
The immediate impact was greater than any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month. The implications of this way of thinking are far-reaching, to the benefit of both you and those around you. Subsequent studies have shown that sending or delivering the letter is not essential to the gain in happiness. That means people who are “out of touch” and people who are deceased are “fair game” for your thanks.
People feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. They can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone’s gratitude, it’s a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further.
To develop an enduring gratitude habit, try linking your gratitude practice to an already ingrained routine, Dr. Wong said. He chooses to think about what he’s grateful for in the morning. “I try to do it when I first turn on the computer at work,” he said in a June 8, 2023, New York Times article. The studies on gratitude don’t indicate how often we ought to express gratitude. But many experts believe that a small dose of gratitude, once a day, is ideal.
“I think the benefits of gratitude activities truly unfold through long-term habits,” said Joel Wong, a professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University’s School of Education. “Write a gratitude letter. Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. On occasion, write one to yourself.
“Gratitude seems to be the gift that keeps on giving,” Dr. Algoe said.
In conclusion, we must all develop an “attitude of gratitude.” If that’s difficult for you, here’s something I recently viewed that would make any Japanese American thankful. It came from Go For Broke’s Evening of Aloha. Chris Komai, emcee for the evening, opened with the following remarks:
“I’m a Sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, and I have to say that being in the presence of the Nisei veterans who I was meeting backstage, I am very humbled just by being in their presence. I understand how different things could have been for me, my family, my community, and our country had it not been for their courage, patriotism and sacrifice. Some of them made the ultimate sacrifice….
“The 33,000 Japanese American men and women who came from Hawaii and across the nation to serve in Europe and the Pacific and stateside knew that they had to give it their all to prove their loyalty to a nation that did not trust them. Their dream was that their families and future generations to live their lives without prejudice.
“I think about this for myself, and how important this was, and it was only when I understood the full context of what those young men and women did. You think about them going to war first, that they were only 18, 19, 20 years old. And in that context, the country had asked them to do something, and it wasn’t right that they were asked to do this when some of their families were locked up in concentration camps.
“With that feeling that I have now when you look at this, I realize for me as a person of Japanese ancestry, I have a debt to pay to them that I could never actually repay. Because if I thanked them for a thousand years, it would still not equal what they did for us.”
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.