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Thanksgiving Science

Gratitude Feels Good for All Parties

We all know how good it feels to be appreciated. When someone thanks us for something, we are happy. It turns out that psychologists have shown that giving thanks also benefits the thanker. For example, Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami conducted a study where participants were divided into two groups: one group was asked to write about what they were thankful for, and the other group was asked to write down what displeased them. After 10 weeks, participants in the thankful group (based upon a relevant questionnaire) were found to be more optimistic and happy than the other group. In another study, conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, participants were asked to write and personally deliver a thank-you letter to someone whom they had never properly thanked. The impact of this exercise was a huge increase in happiness scores.
  You get the idea. Even if you are a natural curmudgeon, it is in your self-interest to practice gratitude on a regular basis. The internet has greatly facilitated thanks-giving. Every now and then, I have reached out to someone from my past, typically a teacher, and thanked them. I strongly encourage this practice, but I also urge you to remember that whatever the reaction of the person being thanked, you have already been successful by doing the thanking. It may happen that with that first thank-you a relationship is rekindled and then this feels extremely good, as happened with me and Professor William B. Dillingham, with whom I studied 19th Century American literature in the mid 1980’s as a doctoral student at Emory University. But it can also happen that the person being thanked doesn’t wish to engage with you at all, as happened when I emailed my college clarinet teacher. After resending my email and still getting no response, I wrote the department secretary (I call this being persistent; my daughter Rebecca calls it “stalking”). The secretary wrote back to say that, yes, my clarinet teacher had received my note and that he was happy to have it. While I was disappointed not to receive a personal response, I needed to remember that my goal was accomplished whether or not I heard back from him.
  With the tale of my clarinet teacher serving as a cautionary lesson, I still very much urge you to make a practice of thanks-giving. Anyone in your life who has been especially nice, kind, or helpful is an appropriate candidate to receive your thanks. Then there are people who worked for you, whom you treated nicely but whose contribution to you and your family continues to grow in hindsight. I am speaking here in particular of women who were responsible for your home and/or child care. At the time the relationship seems to be a standard professional one, if (hopefully) mutually warm and pleasant. But only in retrospect do you realize how important these people were to your family. Go ahead and reach out to thank them.
  It’s wise not to put off your thanks-giving for too long. People are not just sitting around waiting for you to decide to thank them. A few years ago I reached out to Pete Yellin, the person who first taught me clarinet, who then also taught me saxophone as well for about a decade. But alas, I was only able to convey my thanks to his daughter Allegra, for Pete had suffered a debilitating stroke two years before I made contact. The bottom line is that you cannot thank people enough, and it’s a smart idea to do the thanking sooner rather than later. Plus, it’s good for you. Happy Thanks-giving!

TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.

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