For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Gathering at the table with family and friends in memory-filled tradition. Plenty of soul-satisfying food. And, the special feeling that comes from sharing gratitude.
"Thanksgiving has always been a favorite: It's a time for gratitude and a holiday we haven't messed up!" says Susan Kirby, a California mother of two.
That feeling is garnering a lot more attention these days, and not just during the fourth week of November. A universal experience and a component of many religious traditions for centuries, gratitude is being recognized not simply as a desirable virtue, but also as an essential element to wholeness and well-being.
As latecomers to the concept, scientists are now engaged in long-term research that has already confirmed a host of beneficial outcomes, from healthier, more satisfying lives to greater vitality and more generous outreach to help others. "We're seeing how concrete the effects of a grateful focus are," says Robert Emmons, a leading psychologist in the field.
And people from many cultures are seeking ways to make gratitude a more conscious daily attitude that shapes their experience. For some, keeping gratitude diaries or journals helps them be more consistently reflective. Others are turning to websites to energize their practice.
Thousands of participants from 186 countries, for example, visit www.gratefulness.org to share thoughts on message boards or light a cyber candle in gratitude. And a new website by young techies, www.gratitude.net, aims to connect the penchant for game-playing to the desire to help others - with gratitude tokens given out for specific aid received.
"We wanted to create something that could be popular, enjoyable, and do some good," says Tory Gattis, manager of a technology start-up firm, who set the site up with several friends. "People like helping other people out."
Gratitude research is part of the growing field of positive psychology, which focuses on the strengths of human beings. In simple terms, it's an empirical test of counting one's blessings. "We're trying to find ways to measure the healing power of gratitude in people's lives," says Dr. Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis. They're also studying the causes of and impediments to gratitude and developing methods to help people cultivate it.
For example, "the simple act of keeping a gratitude journal on a regular basis seems to have so many different effects," says Emmons. "People feel closer to God, sleep better, feel more connected to others, and make more progress toward important personal goals." They also report fewer symptoms of illness and higher levels of energy than do those in control groups.
While keeping a journal requires discipline, Emmons found that several months after the end of one study, more than 50 percent of participants were continuing their journals and many were encouraging friends to do so, too.
Lisa Krause, a graduate student at a Texas university, says that keeping a journal "really cultivates a skill that facilitates a more natural response later on. Things for which I'm grateful come more readily to mind."
For Mrs. Kirby, it was the pastor at her Baptist church and his sermons on gratitude that challenged her - along with a stone she now keeps in a visible place that says, "An attitude of gratitude is a never-ending prayer."
"Thinking of what you have to be thankful for on a consistent basis makes you more open-minded to people," she says, adding that she and her husband also encourage this in their two young sons. An emergency-aid center in their city invites families to adopt a family in need for the holidays. "My kids have really enjoyed being a part of that experience," she says.
Thankfulness tends to spark greater empathy, research confirms. At the University of Minnesota, for instance, student groups have initiated what they hope will be an annual "Month of Kindness." And Muslim student associations (MSA) nationwide have sponsored fast-athons, inviting non-Muslims to join in on a day of their month-long Ramadan fast. On behalf of each participant, local businesses contribute a dollar to emergency-food providers in their community.
"Part of gratitude in Islam is that if you are given blessings, you should use them as they are intended to be used - in worship, to give to others," says Tarek el-Messidi, a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who started the project in 2001. This year some 130 campus MSAs participated, with an estimated 20,000 students joining the fast. According to the MSA at the University of Maryland at College Park, money raised in their effort was enough to feed more than 4,600 people in need.
Amy Olsen, director of the Jewish Student Center at the University of Minnesota, sparked the idea of a Month of Kindness, and various campus organizations joined in with a wide range of special events. Recent problems on campus, from labor issues to rioting after a hockey championship, made many people "feel a need to focus on things that are beneficial," Ms. Olsen says.
More than 4,000 buttons - "Be kind, pass it on" - were also distributed. The final event on Dec. 3, called "Winter Warmth From You," involves a massive clothing drive to provide winter wear for needy Twin Cities families.