Tears were streaming down his mother’s face. Just minutes earlier, he had unleashed a flurry of harsh statements and cursed at her as she stood their silently. For months, John Foppe’s parents had tried to provide various options, and even personal encounters with others similar to him, to teach him how to do the basics. Like dressing himself. Or eating without assistance. Or using the restroom on his own. But over and over, John had refused to open himself to these possibilities, and was resigned to a life largely dependent on others. His parents struggled with what to do next. But, the night before, they had spoken with his brothers, and told them that they were no longer to help him unless told otherwise. They had decided it was time that John started learning how to do these things on his own. In a moment John later described as one of the most important in his life, his mother walked out of the room to leave him to put his clothes on. He failed. But, lying naked on the floor all alone, he suddenly “accepted that the miracle I had so desperately wanted wasn’t going to happen…I also came to the point at which I realized that my anger at God had brought me no relief, only further pain” (p. 46).
John Foppes had been born with no arms, among a number of other serious congenital abnormalities. Doctors questioned whether he would survive at all. In his deeply motivating book, “What’s Your Excuse? Making the Most Out of What You Have,” John describes his life of growing up with no arms into one of full independence, and his feelings of stigmatization and isolation even in the midst of support from others. In the depths of his struggle, John also notes evident gratitude in what most perceived as a very unfair situation. He expresses his appreciation for moments of tough love, and for many people that were willing to help. He speaks with graciousness for opportunities to take on new challenges, to experience natural surroundings, to know others more deeply. But most of all, he illustrates how growing up with no arms offered him an unusual chance to discover a unique perspective, a unique calling that ultimately helped him overcome many fears and obstacles, not just the ones presented by his missing appendages. What may sound really strange to some people is that John Foppes became thankful that he had no arms, even though much of life would have been easier with them.
Before we can really discuss what authentic gratitude is, though, it seems we address what gratitude is not. Gratitude is not false positivity or the denial of negative emotions. Gratitude is not condoning atrocities and maltreatment by others, even if an outcome might be good. As was noted by Christina Enevoldsen in her blog,false gratitude can lead to negative outcomes that span generations.Being thankful also does not mean being tragically idealistic, or blind to obvious realities. True gratitude does not encourage settling, or an erosion of high standards, even if struggles highlight meaningful moments and progress that may remain hidden to untrained eyes.
The word gratitude itself is derived from both the Latin word gratus, meaning pleasing, and grātitūdin- (stem of grātitūdō), indicating thankfulness. It speaks to not only an act of graciousness, but also positive feelings originating from this deed. Studies (Park, Peterson, and Seligman, 2005) have noted that it is endorsed as a universal character strength across countless cultures and creeds. Research has also indicated that gratitude can have a number of significant, long-lasting positive effects on an individual (Emmons, 2013; Emmons, 2007). In addition to physiological improvements, such as decreased blood pressure and improved immune function, gratitude has been consistently shown to improve social-emotional outcomes in the area of anxiety, depression, and substance use. As a specific therapeutic technique, gratitude can be effective for multiple issues. In one particular study, a gratitude intervention was compared to four other positive-based strategies to determine whether each would increase levels of happiness and reduce depressive symptoms (Seligman et al., 2005). Participants were simply asked to write and deliver a letter to someone that they had never properly thanked. Results indicated that in comparison to other experimental strategies (e.g., focused on using/identifying strengths, recognizing good things in life), the “gratitude visit” group showed far and away the biggest increase in happiness and decrease in depressive symptoms on the immediate post-test. Evidence suggests, however, that repeated acts of gratitude are most likely to be associated with long-term benefits. As I noted in a previous article, In Search of a Hundred Miles of Gratitude, it appears that the direct experience of gratitude, even fleeting, is incompatible with misery and distress. In giving thanks, we recognize a gain, no matter how small; at least for a moment, we let go of our sense of loss.
For those who have experienced significant trauma, gratitude interventions are gaining increasing recognition as effective means for progress. Studies (e.g., Kashdan, Uswatte, and Jillian, 2006; Vernon, Dillon, and Steiner, 2009) have consistently found that PTSD levels are negatively correlated with post-trauma gratitude, independent of trauma severity, chronicity, and time elapsed since the traumatic event. Gratitude not only provides intrapersonal benefits for the gracious person. It also provides interpersonal connections for those who have been traumatized to maintain and expand their network of support. As unfortunately happens, people suffering with significant psychological distress can “wear down” others through repeated solicitation of assistance and comfort. Acts of gratitude provide a unique opportunity to repair these strained bonds.
In really understanding the essence of gratitude, it is important to recognize that gratitude extends much beyond a pleasing act of graciousness. As eloquently described in the article, “Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention” written by Robert Emmons and Robin Stern, gratitude is composed of two key components. One, there is an assertion of “goodness” that exists in a person’s life. But beyond this, there is a clear understanding that at least some of this goodness lies outside the individual. For many, gratitude is not just a worldly transaction, but elemental of a transcendent link. It exemplifies a sense that we are all part of a mysterious, interconnected, interdependent network. As Emmons and Stern noted:
“True gratefulness rejoices in the other. Its ultimate goal is to reflect back the goodness that one has received by creatively seeking opportunities for giving. The motivation for doing so resides in the grateful appreciation that one has lived by the grace of others. In this sense, the spirituality of gratitude is opposed to a self-serving belief that one deserves or is entitled to the blessings that he or she enjoys.” (p. 847)
Some may question whether gratitude can be taught as a lifetime practice, or simply that it is acquired intrinsically or experientially in different ways. KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 162 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 58,000 students. More than 88 percent of their students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program, and 95 percent are African American or Latino. Many students have experienced (and continue to experience) significant trauma and discord in their families and neighborhoods. Nationally, more than 93 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school, and more than 82 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college. The program is largely founded on character building, which focuses on seven very predictive, highly researched traits: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, social intelligence, curiosity, and gratitude. What these educators found, as well as many others, is that traits such as gratitude can be taught, even to those who seem to have many reasons to not be thankful. Qualities such as gratitude not only foster personal responsibility and achievement, but also teach youth that much of their success depends on the well-being of a larger team.
On Father’s Day 2010, our family set off on a morning bike ride. What started out as a fun day turned into horror when our daughter plunged off a precipice after losing control on a local trail. A rock crushed through her forehead just under the helmet. When she stood up, we realized that a hole had opened into the inner covering of her brain. I thought I might be saying goodbye. But as I detailed in my book, many extraordinary things happened on her way to being blessed with an emergency craniotomy in the wee hours of the following day—her 4th birthday. This morning, I walked by her room as she slept soundly after another frenetic day at the Schroeder household. The seven titanic plates and the scars remain, although somewhat faded over the years. I am reminded that she could easily have not been with us. Yet I know we would have been asked to carry on, even joyously, without her. Years removed from that Father’s Day morning, I am not grateful for the experience nor do I hope to ever encounter a similar one again. But I am tremendously thankful for the insight and the gratitude it has provided.
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Emmons, R.A., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69, 846–855.
Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works! A twenty-one day program for creating emotional prosperity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.
Kashdan, T.B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 177_199.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Character strengths in forty nations and fifty states. Unpublished manuscript, University of Rhode Island.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.
Vernon, L.L., Dillon, J.M., & Steiner, A.R.W. (2009). Proactive coping, gratitude, and posttraumatic stress disorder in college women. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 22, 117-127.