Oct. 4, 2007 — -- After two years of research, Deborah Norville has written the book "Thank You Power" in which she argues the importance of gratitude. Norville writes that two words -- "thank you" -- can make you happier and more resilient, and that giving thanks brings life blessings. Read an excerpt below.
THIS BOOK WAS BORN OF COMMON SENSE. NOT THAT I claim to have more of it than anyone else. But it just seemed common sense to me—a hunch, really—that if you want to be happy, focus on what you've got—not what you've not. The benefits of doing just that read like the claims of some too-good-to-be-true infomercial:
These outcomes, reported in the country's top psychology journals, are the findings of some of the nation's foremost re¬searchers in a newly emerged field called positive psychology. For nearly two years, I have been digesting this scientific literature, trying to discover if my hunch had any basis in fact. Did it ever!
Man has been searching for happiness since the beginning. It's one of our inalienable rights, isn't it? Right there in the Declaration of Independence, just after life and liberty. Goodness knows we've been pursuing it long enough: from Eve's first taste of the apple to the conquistadores' quest for golden treasure and the modern-day prowl for a mate, the end game of most of man's endeavors has been fulfillment.
On Wall Street, people in pinstripes rush madly for money and power. Park Avenue plastic surgeons' offices (and plenty of them elsewhere in America) are jammed with ladies, all hoping the latest potion or procedure will make them younger looking and, therefore, happy. A teen races to score the most points and win the MVP trophy. But trophies tarnish; someone else will always have a bigger bank account; and as the poets pointed out long ago, beauty fades. Here we are, two hundred-plus years after beginning the American pursuit of happiness, still chasing it, wondering what the secret is to finding it.
What if—just as in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy learned that the ability to get home to Kansas had been hers all along—the secret to lasting happiness was within each of us? What if a lasting sense of completion, an enduring feeling of contentment, was possible—simply by changing the lens through which we viewed daily life? Nothing dramatic, nothing painful—no calories expended: just a conscious alteration of the way we look at our own little corner of the world.
Here's the good news: you've got the power right now. Regard¬less of your age, religion, financial circumstances, or any other classification society might dream up, you have within you the tools to allow you to live the life of satisfaction, security, and optimism you long for. That power begins with two words: thank you.
When I was a child, my parents were constantly carping at me, "Debbie, say thank you." Yours probably did likewise, and now, as a parent, I do the same—constantly reminding my children to be polite. I want them to say, "Thank you," and "Oh no, you first" and to act as well-brought-up, mannerly children. It's what one does in a civilized society.
But society these days seems uncivilized. A sense of entitlement is found everywhere, from the child who expects an A on his report card, without the test scores to back it up, to the office worker who wants a promotion despite lackluster performance. Manners are regarded as a relic of the old days. Who hasn't been annoyed by the loudmouth with the cell phone on the commuter train or shocked when a guest forgets to say thank you?
It's not that we don't have plenty to be thankful for. Americans enjoy an unprecedented standard of living: in the last fifty years, the average family has acquired more and fancier cars, better houses, and more stuff. But more doesn't mean happier. The number of Americans who say they are "very happy" has dropped a bit from 35 to 30 percent,1 despite all the getting we've been doing.
Americans on average do have more money than they did fifty years ago, but after financial stability has been achieved, more money doesn't equal greater happiness. According to a report in Money magazine, if you make $50,000, you're about twice as likely to say you're very happy as someone who makes less than $20,000. But from $50,000 in income to $90,000, there is virtually no in¬crease in happiness level. Forty-two percent of those earning between $50,000 and $89,999 say they are very happy while 43 percent of those earning more than $90,000 also rate themselves as very happy.2 Divorce, suicide, and depression rates, however, do rise. Is there a connection?I'm a collector of quotes and often ask people if they have a line or two that has special meaning. Steve Forbes, scion of the Forbes magazine family, told me that his favorite quote is the one that appears on his editorial page in his family's business publication:
With all thy getting get understanding.—PROVERBS 4:7 (KJV)
Get understanding. How interesting that a man behind a magazine focused on wealth accumulation is really just trying to make sense of our world. I think that's probably what pushed me down the career path I chose.
As a television reporter for nearly three decades, I've been sharing the stories of ordinary Americans, trying to make sense of the situations in which my story subjects have found themselves. It's not always easy: The mother of the brain-damaged accident victim. The family of the teen killed by a drunk driver. The woman battling a life-threatening disease. But I have always marveled that certain people, even in the face of heart-stopping obstacles and the most difficult of circumstances, are able to go forward with smiles on their faces and optimism in their outlooks.As a reporter, you look for the anomaly: the fact that seems a bit off, the story that just doesn't fit. And it didn't make sense to me that, over and over again, people in absolutely the worst imaginable situations seemed relentlessly optimistic. They looked for the better day to come and expected it with certainty.
How was this possible? In each instance, it ultimately came down to the same answer: they were grateful. In each of their sometimes heartbreaking situations, they had found something for which they could be thankful, because being thankful was a long-held habit.
Those "Debbie, say thank you" admonitions from my mom and dad resonated in my memory. Mom was always awfully nice to me when I'd hand to her my birthday thank you notes to mail. "Good girl," she'd say as she ruffled my hair. I would bask in the praise, knowing that I was in Mom's good graces for the rest of the day. It was a good place to be. As a child, I spent plenty of time in the doghouse, so I treasured those good days.
Frankly, saying thank you, mentally as well as verbally, was probably a better way to go through life than barreling through the days as a crabby old grouch (though I have plenty of those days too!). We all heard it growing up: "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." But it wasn't just that other people appreciated hearing me say thank you. I was different. I was better. I just always seemed to feel happier on those days when I actually made a point of savoring the aroma of the coffee vendor's cart as I walked past or noticing how beautiful the flowers in the garden were.Of course, you have to see the flowers first.
Most of us blast through each day, virtually unaware of what goes on around us. Think about your daily commute to work. If you are the average American, you spend 24.3 minutes a day getting to your job. Double your trip in and you've spent close to an hour or more each day in transit. I don't know any average Americans, I guess, because everyone I know spends much more time than that getting to work. Before I moved, my commute was an hour and a half one way. My sister spends thirty minutes in the car just to get her kids to school, then turns around and goes the other way to get to work.
Quick—ten minutes into your daily commute, what do you see outside the window? Come on. You pass by that spot every day! It's not that you aren't aware of the shops and homes along your route. You just don't notice them. Maybe you should.
Common sense was telling me that one aspect to feeling good about life is noticing certain things about your life—and acknowledging the good stuff. To the skeptic in me, that ac-cen-tu-ate the positive seemed more like a motto for some Dr. Feelgood guy on daytime TV rather than a meaningful standard for a life marked by contentment. Oprah's been talking about her gratitude journal for ages, so it wasn't really anything new. But it did seem like the perfect topic for one of those motivational speakers who have plenty of platitudes about attitudes. Like those late-night infomercial salespeople, they get you all revved up, but in truth, it's just a bunch of hot air. Me, skeptical? That was an understatement.
Still, that hunch about injecting conscious appreciation into my daily routine made sense. But journalists don't go on hunches alone. They act on their instincts and follow up on their hunches with investigation to see where their research leads them. I was stunned by what I found when I started snooping. Turns out, I wasn't the only person with this hunch. I discovered a new field of dispassionate, scientific research investigating the impact that mind-set and positive emotions play in our lives. The influence is quantifiable—both physically and emotionally: Practicing gratitude, acknowledging the blessings in your life, and making it a point to recognize those good things, will positively change your life. You will be happier, healthier, and better able to handle the stresses of daily life simply by saying thank you.
For years, science has looked at what happens to human beings when things go wrong. We know how bad stress is for us. The negative effects of stress and anger on the cardiovascular system, among other body systems, are well documented. Less is known about what happens when all is right with your world. Turns out the opposite of stress—that is, experiencing positive situations and recognizing them as such—can result in a host of encouraging outcomes, from fewer illnesses and higher immune response to more expansive thinking and creative problem solving. That's not a hunch. It's laboratory proven. As I lost myself in my research, I found myself asking, is it possible that the key to real-life happiness can be found in just two words?
Before I took the first step in starting my research, I conducted a little experiment to test-drive my hypothesis. What happened during my experiment knocked me out.