I Never Understood What Gratitude Really Meant—Until I Met This 87-Year-Old Man
We’re always hearing that we should say please and thank you, or that gratitude is a virtue. But I never really understood what gratitude was, or what a powerful force it could be, until I met a man named Fred Jones, one of the six people in my book Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a year among the oldest old.
Fred was 87, living alone in a walk-up apartment in Brooklyn, in the process of losing two toes to gangrene. His closest daughter was dying of breast cancer. But when asked his favorite part of the day, he never hesitated. “Waking up in the morning and saying, Thank God for another day, on my way to 110.”
I didn’t get it. I looked at Fred’s life and didn’t see what he had to be thankful for. But I knew that every time I visited him, I came away feeling happier than I was before.
So after a couple months, I started to follow his lead, consciously giving thanks for things in my life. If Fred could do it, I figured, I had no excuse not to. I started with easy stuff, like the love I’d had from my parents, or the job I enjoy doing. And before long, to my great surprise, I began to understand gratitude the way Fred did.
This gratitude isn’t that momentary warmth you feel when someone gives you a gift or a helping hand. For Fred, it was a way of seeing the world—an acknowledgement that forces outside of yourself are responsible for many of the good things in your life. Most come to you without your having to do anything to make them possible. You didn't have to invent chocolate or sex, or compose the great works of Mozart. And you don't have to push anybody out of the way to enjoy them. I slowly stopped seeing the world as an opponent I needed to beat or a punishment I had to resist. More often than not it’s on my side.
In 2015, researchers at the University of Southern California set out to study what happens in the brain of a person feeling gratitude. Using fMRI scanners, they gave twenty-three subjects very short texts written by Holocaust survivors describing acts of kindness they received from strangers—some quite small, like a loaf of stale bread, and others involving great sacrifice and risk, like a hiding place when Nazi troops were closing in. The subjects were asked to imagine themselves in the position of the people receiving the favors, and to rate how thankful they were for the gifts. The researchers then mapped the regions of the brain activated.
The scans showed activity in multiple parts of the brain, suggesting that gratitude involved a network of emotional responses. The subjects’ brains lit up not just in their reward centers, noting the benefit they received, but also their moral and social processing centers, responding to the persons giving the gifts. The more grateful the subjects said they were, the stronger the response in the regions of their brains governing moral and social cognition. This was often unrelated to the size of the favor. Gratitude, as the subjects experienced it, entailed a relationship with others, not just with the benefit received.
The experiment also illustrates how gratitude can accompany suffering. You don’t have to be on easy street to feel grateful. No one would envy a Holocaust refugee huddled over a loaf of stale bread, except for a refugee without one. A hard life may have as many opportunities for gratitude as a cushy one.
Robert A. Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, has for most of this century studied the positive effects of gratitude in people like Fred, and ways to instill these in people who aren’t constitutionally grateful. Back in 2003, he and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami set out to measure whether giving thanks changed people’s attitudes toward life, or whether people with positive outlooks just tended to be more grateful. In a series of experiments of different durations and intensities, they asked subjects to keep journals of things they were grateful for (one group of subjects) or things that annoyed or bothered them (a second group). A third group was asked to write down something that happened to them or some way in which they were better off than others. In each experiment, the three groups began with comparable levels of gratitude. The experiments ran from two weeks to nine weeks.
In each study, the subjects who wrote down something they were grateful for reported greater levels of well-being and more optimism about the coming weeks or days. The more often they wrote, the stronger the effect. Depending on how the study was constructed, they reported other positive effects: they exercised more, slept better, woke up more refreshed, or were more likely to have helped someone else with a problem. In later experiments, Emmons and others have found that people who gave thanks had lower blood pressure, less inflammation, better immune function, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
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It was easy to see this in Fred, who had plenty of reasons to dwell on his problems but didn’t. In giving thanks for even small pleasures—a scoop of ice cream, a smile from a neighbor—he magnified these pleasures and left less room for complaint or envy. Giving thanks also tempered his isolation, because it connected him mentally with forces beyond himself. He saw the world as a benevolent place that wanted him to be happy, an extraordinary mind-set for an African American man raised poor in the South. It was not that Fred did not have hardships. He just didn’t define his life by them.
So we can all learn something from Fred’s example. He wasn’t grateful because his life was so easy. He just found things to be thankful for, even when it was very, very hard. And if you can do this, even a hard life can be reason to give thanks.
John Leland is a Metro reporter for The New York Times and the author of Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a year among the oldest old, which was recently published by Sarah Chrichton Books.