If you make a list of the most important words in the English language, be sure to include the word "thanks" near the top.
Researchers at several institutions have come up with evidence that simply showing gratitude may be among the most powerful -- and underused -- forces in our lives. It can strengthen relationships, and make us happier and more satisfied with our lives.
That sounds like a high order for what seems like a simple gesture, but there is compelling evidence that expressing gratitude regularly can change a person's life.
And while you might believe that showing thanks is a personality trait and thus difficult to change, some scientists, including psychology professor Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, believes we can all learn how to do it better.
"It is a [psychological] trait," Emmons said via e-mail, "but unlike something like extraversion-introversion, it is not fixed in one's biological makeup.
"Gratitude is an emotional reaction and a way of looking at the world," he noted. "We have some control over this aspect. Gratitude is a sustainable approach to life that can be freely chosen for oneself. It is choosing to focus on blessings rather than burdens, gifts rather than curses, and people report that it transforms their lives."
But it's not necessarily easy. Someone who is "agreeable, optimistic or empathic" will find it easier than someone who is "disagreeable, pessimistic or narcissistic," Emmons said, but he maintains that six months of "concerted effort and intentional practice" can have a dramatic impact on how one expresses gratitude and how that can transform a life.
Emmons didn't initially choose this course of study. When he was a grad student he applied for a research assistant position with a professor who was studying happiness. So, of course, he had to immerse himself in happiness.
"I was not especially interested in happiness at the time," he said. "I didn't think it was very interesting. Thought it was dumb, actually. Turns out to be the best investment I ever made. My research on happiness led me to focus on gratitude because gratitude was the forgotten factor in happiness research. Just ignored. Neglected. Now we know better."
Emmons plunged headlong into researching gratitude while teaching one of his first classes in health psychology at UC Davis. He assigned some students to write down five things they were thankful for each day. Other students were told to record their complaints.
Three weeks later, the students who kept track of their blessings reported measurable improvements in psychological, physical and social well-being. The complainers were significantly less satisfied with their lives after just three weeks.
Emmons has conducted dozens of similar studies in the years since that first experiment, leading to a book ("Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can make You Happier"), and he has come up with a list of 10 ways to make one more thankful.
At the top of the list is the first assignment he made to his students in 1998: Keep a journal. Write down what you are thankful for, and read it over and over.
It may sound a little hokey, but other scientists have reached similar conclusions.