Gratitude is a key to happiness

On the first weekend of October most German religious communities again will celebrate Thanksgiving. (In the USA it is not celebrated until the end of November although the basic idea is quite similar.) Here in the rural area where we live as well as in the cities people are doing their very best to decorate church sanctuaries with fruit, vegetables and flowers. In my opinion it represents a wonderful tradition because at least once a year it breaks with this matter of course habit of our, usually thoughtless daily excursions to super markets and stores. We are rarely aware that compared to the rest of the world, we are magnificently provided for. 

I found the photos by Peter Menzel on this subject particularly fascinating. “What the World Eats”, he labels his photos showing families around the globe surrounded by the foodstuffs they consume within one week.” Looking at these photos, one immediately notices (naturally apart from the immense differences in the money spent) the assortment of foodstuffs. It drives home that the variety and selection of groceries to which we are used, cannot be taken for granted. This is especially obvious with the families fromTschad, Ecuador or Buthan.
Groceries are not all for that one can be grateful of course, but they are a good start. After all, being grateful makes you happy! That is even scientifically proven. In 2002 Mike McCullough and Robert Emmons conducted a study where they divided the subjects into three groups. All of them had to keep a two-week diary. They were supposed to either specifically record events for which they were grateful or the normal every day stuff or events in their lives in general. The participants’ life satisfaction was captured with a test prior and after these two weeks. And lo and behold after these two weeks the values of the gratitude group on the subject happiness and satisfaction were considerably higher than before.

Why don’t you try one of these happiness diaries? The “trick” is not to sugarcoat things but rather that one simply becomes aware of all the small and major things one experiences every day and which one does not even register as something to be particularly grateful for any longer. It is a fact that every one of us has a lot more to be grateful for than comes to mind. It begins with waking up in the morning and being healthy (or waking up, at all) and grateful for the sunshine and does not end with having a roof over one’s head. All it takes is a few minutes of our time to envision that things should not be taken for granted and are just ordinary but that they are a gift, a gift not granted equally to many people in other places. The impact on one’s own satisfaction is enormous – you’ll see! 

Here is another wonderful idea: During the next few weeks why don’t you demonstrate your appreciation to a person you believe has earned it. It could be somebody who did something for you in the past and whom you have not really thanked up to now or it could also be someone who currently deserves your gratitude. It does not have to be something spectacular, just like in the case of your appreciation diary – neither that for which you express your gratitude, nor the manner in which you do it. Important is that you clearly express your gratitude: Tell him or her for what you are grateful and what it means to you that he or she did for you. In that way you even kill two birds on the subject of happiness with one stone because you contribute to your own as well as to that of the other person’s who is certain to be very appreciative.

Perfectly illustrating the subject of gratitude in our village in the palatinate, in addition to Thanksgiving we have another wonderful tradition: the Laurentius-Blessing of the Bread. Once a year on Laurentius Day the citizens of Herxheim load a large rack wagon with loaves of bread and pull it in a solemn procession to the village boundary where the bread is then distributed among the residents of the surrounding communities. This ritual goes back to the year 1666 (!). At that time Herxheim was ravaged by the pestilence that killed a large part of the population. Naturally the village was under a ban because no one outside of it wanted to be infected. Then the inhabitants of the surrounding communities eased the famine of the starving Herxheimers by carrying baskets of bread and other food stuffs up to the ban border and leaving them there. In response the Herxheimers made a solemn promise: “When the hunger and pestilence are gone, each year after the harvest we shall bless the first bread and forever take a wagon drawn by a pair to the Finsterloch and distribute it to our benefactors.”
The pestilence disappeared and the Herxheimers kept their promise to this day. Gratitude lasting for 340 years – a great thing, no?