Would it really be alright to rhapsodize about Thanksgiving and gratitude while seething in rage? I pondered about that one morning at breakfast while perusing The New York Times and The Washington Post.

One might ask why this writer should be so concerned about theorizing about gratitude. The obvious answer to this question would be to point out to the gentle reader that this is, in fact, a Thanksgiving article. But, of course, there is a better reason.

In the last couple of decades, several researches have been made from which results have demonstrated a strong co-relation between gratitude and happiness. (Yes, you read it right!) According to UC Berkeley’s Dr. Summer Allen:

“Research suggests that gratitude may be associated with many benefits for individuals, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.

A handful of studies suggest that more grateful people may be healthier, and others suggest that scientifically designed practices to increase gratitude can also improve people’s health and encourage them to adopt healthier habits.”

Knowing the extraordinary effects that gratitude can elicit, it is no surprise, then, that I wondered if a cynical heart could still become a grateful heart.

Some years ago, I did try to maintain a grateful journal. It was just a little app and everyday I was supposed to write three things that had happened during that day that I was grateful for. I am sorry to say that it became a chore in a very short time. I spent a long time every night trying to come up with things to write in the journal (Should I be grateful eggs were on sale today? Is coming up with lame excuses to be grateful cheating?). If a designed practice, in the words of Dr. Allen, was not enough to bring me to the right state of mind, what should I do instead? I asked myself this question one day in between maneuvering through traffic and commenting out loud on the parentage of the driver in front of me. Perhaps, I thought, I should focus instead on dealing with my anger. Was this feeling really just a reflection of today’s political climate? Was it hormones? Was I having a middle life crisis? After careful reflection that resulted in zero answers, I decided that it didn’t really matter where it was coming from. As in “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, I decided to just see if I could transform anger into something else.

I dug further into Dr. Allen’s paper and came to an interesting section:

“(…) the relationship between gratitude and reciprocal altruism may help explain the finding that people feel more grateful for benefits provided by strangers or more distant acquaintances than they do for similar benefits provided by close relatives (…) and that gratitude increases people’s trust in others – but only toward people they don’t know well already.”

“Furthermore, theoretical work suggests that gratitude may have played a role in the evolution of another form of reciprocal altruism: upstream reciprocity, which is when receiving 

benefits from one individual spurs someone to show generosity towards a third party.”

These findings gave me an idea. What if I used the idea of reciprocal altruism (being nice to each other) to create a change chain (upstream reciprocity) that eventually would come back to me? A la Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (Are you talking to me?!), I decide to approach strangers in the street, in the grocery store, look straight into their eyes and engage them (Hello!, Good Morning!, Beautiful weather we are having today) and start a conversation or sometimes help in small tasks. I called it aggressive politeness. At this point, one might ask how is that different from normal civility. My answer to that is that the intensity and effort I am putting in it is different than I would have done before. I am trying to engage people of all sorts and I am pushing myself to be affable and engaging. Not an easy task for a person like me. To my surprise, I have found out that many people are happy to chat back, give opinions or suggestions. I get the feeling that today’s society is full of lonely, isolated people, afraid to engage others that might not share their opinions. When they are faced with kindness, however small, they are reminded that we are all, in our cores, basically the same.

Contrary to what I first thought, I don’t have to wait for the altruistic chain to come back to me. It is a true reciprocal relationship – a mirror – where output equals input. I immediately feel lighter and more contented after having one of those encounters. I am glad that people might not be as different as I first presupposed. I feel something strange. What is this feeling?

I find a broader definition, given by Dr. Randy Sansone and Dr. Lori Sansone, “Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.”

Ah, life is indeed full of surprises! Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

P.S.: If you are interested in the psychology of happiness and would like to dig further, these are the papers I skimmed (I’m being truthful, I didn’t read the whole thing):

Allen, Summer. “The Science of Gratitude”. Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley. May, 2018. 72pp

Sansone, Randy A. and Sansone, Lori A. “Gratitude and Well Being: the Benefits of Appreciation”. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2010;7(11):18-22