Thanksgiving 2010: In these hard times, are Americans thankful?

Thanksgiving 2010 finds Americans politically divided and struggling financially. But poll data suggest that Americans are fiercely resilient, a quality that is strengthened by feeling gratitude.

Steve Bloom/The Olympian/AP
Trying to make ends meet daily herself, Carol Anderson leaves the Thurston County Food Bank in Olympia, Wash., Monday, after picking up a Thanksgiving basket to help make a holiday dinner for her son, who's currently homeless.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Chart: Americans remain resilient despite hard times

A wavering economy, a polarized electorate, a future in fog. On the eve of Thanksgiving 2010, what’s there to be thankful for in America? As in the 1970s, the so-called “misery index” has risen in recent years as the deficit ballooned, incomes flattened, and a mortgage crisis put the dream of homeownership in jeopardy for millions. Yet nearly three years into a national economic crisis, there’s evidence in polling data that gratitude – the positive emotion that flows from the realization you’ve benefited from another’s deeds – is being embraced by Americans as a way to readjust their expectations and reevaluate their lives.

What indications are there that Americans are thankful?

The latest Gallup "life evaluation" poll, which measures how Americans view their lives in the present and in the near future, showed the highest scores in three years in May and a slow but steady climb since November 2008 – a sign, Gallup says, of "ferocious resilience."

And an important factor bolstering resilience, say researchers Robert Emmons at the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough at the University of Miami, is experiencing and showing gratitude. The social scientists say gratitude can also thwart deeper feelings of resentment that stem from personal economic woes or anger at, for example, the political status quo in Washington.

Tough times "show how strong you are, how resilient you are, how much you have grown and learned and developed; and you start to value other things in your life," says M.J. Ryan, an author who writes about self-empowerment.

In that light, she says, the improving "life evaluation" readings indicate, at least in part, that "Americans are focusing on what they're grateful for."

What indicators show Americans are too preoccupied to be grateful?

Charitable giving, one barometer of the collective sense of well-being in the country, is way down in the US, with some 36 percent of Americans saying they'll give less to charity this year.

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However, that is in part due to personal income insecurity, studies show, and is contradicted by the fact that some 88 percent of those who plan to give fewer gifts still plan to donate more of their time and skills.

Many people living in an acquisitive society such as the US exhibit narcissistic traits and an unjustified sense of entitlement, writes Joe Ferullo in the National Catholic Reporter, adding that for those people "economic hard times feel like unjust punishment from an uncaring parent."

Moreover, a recent ABC News/Yahoo! poll showed 85 percent of Americans saying they're angry about the state of the economy.

According to a 2003 paper in the journal Social Behavior and Personality, anger, narcissism, and a sense of entitlement all run directly counter to experiencing and expressing gratitude.

What can we glean from the recent midterm elections?

A recent Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed that nearly 4 in 5 Americans say they're either "very angry" or "moderately angry" with Congress and the federal bureaucracy in Washington, a sentiment that led to a political shake-up that put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

A total of 52 House incumbents who stood for reelection lost their seats as the balance of power shifted.

Additionally, more than half of all "mainstream" Americans, according to the Rasmussen polling firm, now sympathize with the loosely organized tea party movement.

The breadth of that support correlates directly to American disenchantment, not only with Democrats in power, but with government as a whole, notes Noam Chomsky, the noted MIT linguist and philosopher, in a recent article. "It is ... appropriate to understand what lies behind the movement's popular appeal, and to ask ourselves why justly angry people are being mobilized," Chomsky writes.

A recent Audience Alliance Poll found that nearly 3 in 5 Americans believe the government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals, and 2 out of 3 don't want their taxes increased so government can help their neighbors.

When people receive what the government claims is their right, "the spirit of gratitude retreats from the social experience," writes Roger Scruton in the conservative American Spectator.

Robert Lane, emeritus professor of political science at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who conducted research into comparative levels of happiness in different countries, takes a contrary position, arguing that an overemphasis on self-reliance can be a hurdle to finding common cause and expressing gratitude for the actions of others.

"Part of the reason America is the most depressed nation, the most anxious, is individualism and lack of a common culture," he says.

If Americans are thankful this year, will it benefit the whole country?

In the latter half of 2008, when Gallup showed the steepest dip in its "thrivability" index among Americans over the past three years, the polling organization also found that Thanksgiving was the highest-ranked holiday of the year in terms of people's happiness.

Taking note of blessings on a daily basis can have a powerful impact on general happiness, researchers say. For one thing, psychologists now theorize that "gratitude-motivated reciprocity" – or positive acts sparked by a feeling of thankfulness – raises the overall level of altruism in society.

Gratitude "is literally de-stressing," says Ms. Ryan, author of "AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For." "When we're under stress, our stress response turns on.

"When, conversely, we have positive emotions – and gratitude is one of the easiest to experience – it dampens down the stress response, bringing our bodies, minds, and spirit back into balance," she says. "More interestingly, emotions like gratitude create an upward spiraling effect in which you get happier and happier."

Gratitude, Ryan says, is "a powerfully positive practice to deal with hard times."

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