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Even in the doom and gloom of a COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are finding reasons to feel good about how we’re helping one another. But how can we turn those feelings into actions and relationships that improve our lives? The science of psychology has some answers

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Embroidery by Emily Beaton / Animation by The Globe and Mail

Trapped in her St. John’s home this spring, with her husband and two adult sons, Tracey Robinson did not want anyone reminding her to be grateful. She was not feeling it. The arrival of her youngest son, returning from Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., meant they had to self-isolate for two weeks. The house was cramped, the dog miserable, the humans scruffy. By the second week, she lost the motivation to do anything productive, reduced to a lump on the couch. But then, finally, came freedom. She remembers the bliss of the 15th day, when her family stood on the sidewalk looking back at their front door, and felt overwhelming joy. She still vows, many months later, to never complain about walking the dog again.

Maybe, maybe not; our moods tend to settle at baseline, eventually. But this pandemic, by taking so much away, and only intermittently giving bits of life back, has raised the country’s gratitude quotient.

On surveys, Canadians report feeling more stress and anxiety, but also more gratitude. We have made an art of it – literally – with the thank you signs for health care workers now fading in front windows. Gratitude is to be encouraged, according to countless self-help books and wellness blogs, like regular hand-washing and physical distancing. A regular dose, we are told, will help us sleep better, heal faster, feel more optimistic, make friends more easily, earn promotions more quickly – it’s the near-miracle cure for the anxiety and despair that ails us.

Still, has all this gratitude journaling and #grateful posting gone too far?

Perhaps you feel it’s all a bit too “happy clappy,” as Ms. Robinson puts it. “Sometimes, I just think my glass is broken,” she says. “You just have to accept that things are not right.”

It might seem churlish to go after gratitude, what Cicero famously named “the greatest of virtues, and the parent of all the others." Guided by gratitude we are polite and courteous, and the wheels of society roll smoothly forward – it’s why parents teach the please-and-thank-yous fresh out of the baby gate.

But more recently, psychologists and philosophers have begun to push back against all this gushing over gratitude. The science, as a closer look at the data reveals, is not so clear-cut; some of gratitude’s benefits, especially when it comes to people struggling with stress, anxiety and depression, may have been oversold. Some philosophers and sociologists are also disputing the assumption that gratitude is always good, arguing instead that it has been used to reinforce inequality for certain groups, such as immigrants, women and minorities, and to stifle challengers of the status quo. New experiments testing gratitude’s influence suggest it may even prompt us to act, often unconsciously, against our own best interests, or values.

In truth, pop psychology and self-help books have done gratitude a disservice, reducing it to Instagram-ready platitudes and easy exercises, as if simply writing down three things to be thankful for will secure a sunny place in the middle of a storm. Gratitude is easy to profess and hard to sustain; feeling grateful for an unexpected favour is not the same as being grateful in the middle of life’s trials and tribulations. The latter practice is deliberate and rigorous. A lot to ask, these days.

Still, to quote Ms. Robinson, speaking for us all, “The world is crap but you have to live in it, so how do you get by?” As it happens, gratitude may do its best work when life is at its worst; to see the good, we need the bad. If we aspire to be more grateful, then, with COVID-19 cases surging and a dark winter looming, the time is ripe for it.

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Embroidery by Emily Beaton / Animation by The Globe and Mail

Chanel Attema was terribly unhappy. Thanks to the pandemic, the 24-year-old had to cut her working year in Australia short and come home to sleep on the pull-out sofa of her parents' one-bedroom condo. Even after her self-isolation, she left the condo only for walks with her mom, for fear that any additional trips might bring the virus back to her father, who has leukemia. The threat of COVID-19 was constant: The family bleached their hands and every bag of groceries. Chanel never saw her friends, except virtually. On top of everything, she was dealing with a recent break-up.

Something had to change, so Ms. Attema signed up for an online course on well-being, and began keeping a gratitude journal for 30 days. She linked up with a friend, and every morning, she did a writing exercise: Look around the room and list what makes you grateful; describe a picture that makes you happy; think of a future event you are looking forward to.

“It gave me 30 minutes to reflect on something positive,” she says, “and then I could go back to being miserable.”

And yet over time, she began to savour more moments in her day, as if gratitude were seeping into her mood.

Researchers draw a distinction between state gratitude – a response, for instance, to a gift – and trait gratitude, which is a way of seeing the world, and really, the ultimate goal. Studies find that naturally grateful people are happier, more likeable, and thus tend to have better relationships. Gratitude serves as a shield when disasters strike; according to research based on interviewing survivors of 9/11 and hurricanes, people who were more inherently grateful were more resistant to negative emotions, more resilient in the face of adversity, and able to find meaning even when life is pretty rotten – useful qualities to possess right about now.

The challenge has been training gratitude in those of us who don’t naturally lean that way. The research into gratitude training has grown exponentially in the last two decades, as psychologists began to pay attention to positive emotions, with journaling the most well-studied intervention. In landmark research by Robert Emmons, the founding editor of the Journal of Positive Psychology, people who “counted blessings versus burdens" in weekly or daily journals became more optimistic, had fewer physical complaints, and exercised more. Many other studies have produced similar findings.

But meta-analyses published in the last few years have found that gratitude interventions may not work as well as early studies suggested, especially when it comes to pulling people out of negative emotions or mental illness. A 2019 research review published in the Journal of Positive Psychology by Dutch researchers found “little evidence for unique beneficial effects of gratitude on physical health,” and suggested that while gratitude itself seemed closely tied to psychological well-being, the evidence for gratitude interventions was inconclusive.

“It’s hard to convince people something is worthwhile without potentially over-selling it,” said Jennifer Cheavens, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University who co-authored a meta-analysis of 27 studies earlier this year that found gratitude interventions had only a modest effect when it came to reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. “Sometime they just get a little bit ahead of the data.”

To be clear, Dr. Cheavens isn’t knocking gratitude as a positive emotion. She’s saying the science isn’t there yet for prescribing it as treatment. Many of the studies were based on small samples, with subjects self-reporting their symptoms. One issue may be the duration and intensity of the interventions themselves – even Dr. Emmons concedes in his book Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier that short-term exercises will not likely be enough to transform a person into a constant state of thanksgiving.

To get better at gratitude, Dr. Emmons writes, we must practise at it – the key to accomplishing this lies both in his vision of gratitude and his observation on the ways we fail at it. The first error appears in the lists we make – we spend too much time being grateful for things like patio heaters and toilet paper, not enough for relationships and experience. Some of us, unfortunately, are just born grouchy, or as Dr. Emmons explains, with a negativity bias; finding the bright side requires a more dedicated search. Ego and entitlement also get in the way of admitting that we are dependent on others; we prefer good fortune to be our own doing. And even then, we are rarely satisfied with the fortune we get.

“Gratitude is the realization that we have everything we need in the moment,” Dr. Emmons writes. Gratitude acknowledges goodness, and recognizes the source. It requires humility, an awareness that we need other people – which is why, he explains, narcissists fail at it. Gratitude is “untethered from circumstance” and refined by adversity. It requires, as a guiding principle, seeing more good than bad, even when life is more bad than good. This kind of gratitude, he writes, "is not for the “intellectually lethargic.” It is more than nice manners. It is a life’s work.

But to think deeply and seriously about gratitude, we should also be mindful of its dark side.

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Health-care workers wave to people clapping and yelling thank you at a 7 p.m. tribute outside the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver on April 8.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

“Are we being truly grateful to personal support workers, or are we having this conversation because we know we cannot do without them right now?” asks Bharati Sethi, a professor of social work at King’s University College, who has researched the racism faced by immigrant and refugee caregivers. It is an experience she knows personally, having worked as a PSW after she arrived in Canada as an international student from India; when she complained about being mistreated and yelled at by clients, the response was that she should be grateful for whatever pay she received, and count herself lucky to have a job.

Even now, Dr. Sethi struggles with those dual identities: the immigrant who should still be meekly grateful for being allowed in, and the award-winning scholar who worked hard for respected status as a Canadian. “What we don’t see is the social and health impacts of silencing people.” She wonders what will happen “when the bells are quiet, the thank yous are gone.” Will all this “gratitude” translate into better pay and working conditions?

Robert Burroughs, a cultural historian at Leeds Beckett University in England, who recently published a paper on racism and gratitude, distinguishes between two forms of gratitude – the kind that wells up from within, and the social version of gratitude, that is performed on demand, like “a kind of emotional currency.” Those with less power often feel obliged to show more gratitude, he suggests, pointing to a long history of minority groups being expected to be grateful for incremental progress, as if freedom and equality were a favour bestowed upon a person, rather than a right they are entitled to receive.

Philosophers and sociologists have raised concerns that a society that expects gratitude may suppress complaint, and push people to avoid looking seriously at problems in society.

“If you are someone who doesn’t like certain critical voices you can exploit gratitude norms to silence or pressure them to be less challenging,” suggests Richard Eibach, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, who has researched how gratitude can be used to justify the status quo. So war protesters are often portrayed as ungrateful for the soldier’s sacrifice. The refugee who complains about housing and school is “ungrateful” for being welcomed into the country.

When Sara Asalya, a program manager at Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto, began writing critically about social problems, such as the lack of affordable childcare in Canada, the reaction from some quarters was vicious. As an immigrant from Palestine, she should be “grateful and shut up, or go home," online commentators told her. The message is familiar: Eight years after arriving here, and now a Canadian citizen, she still has conversations that start with “where are you from?” and ends with, “you must be so grateful.” Newcomers get this lesson early, she says. “If you are born here, you can hold politicians accountable, but as an immigrant you should be a good Canadian, and never complain.” Of course, “I am grateful,” she says, “I don’t need to be reminded." But how long does her imposed term of gratitude last before she has the same rights of free speech as another citizen?

Gratitude also suffers from a gender imbalance, says Liz Jackson, a researcher at the Education University of Hong Kong, and the author of the upcoming book, Beyond Virtue. Women express gratitude more often than men, a trend that Dr. Jackson says begins with girls in school. Male partners receive more thanks for doing household chores, a pattern that reinforces gender roles at home.

Other researchers have suggested that misplaced gratitude may lead people to tow the line, even at the expense of their own values. A 2019 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin conducted a series of experiments that ran subjects through various workplace scenarios in which they were treated unfairly by a senior manager who then did a favour for them; those who expressed more gratitude toward the manager were more likely to say they wouldn’t report their boss for wrongdoing at work.

Dr. Jackson also suggests that the pressure to “feel good” all the time can be harmful – making people feel guilty when they aren’t more grateful. But gratitude alone isn’t the virtue – it’s what we do with it. “One can be grateful, happy and resilient, and just hide at home and turn a blind eye to the plight of others.”

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Embroidery by Emily Beaton/Embroidery by Emily Beaton

How then to be grateful in this complicated time? What should we say at the Thanksgiving table this year, having been advised not to share the turkey with our extended family? How shall we pull ourselves out of the doom and gloom we rightfully feel?

Gratitude has one undisputed power we might harness right now: its ability to bolster social relationships and inspire kindness, to take us out of our heads and look to the needs of others. Think of gratitude as ballast in our collective boat tipping over with misery, resentment and frustration; gratitude rights the boat before it swamps. Steadied, we can focus on what – and who – is around us. One of the criticisms of gratitude interventions is that they tend to be private, individual actions, and yet, as Dr. Cheavens notes, those that involve another person -- such as delivering a letter of thanks to someone – appear to produce more intense feelings of gratitude. Spreading gratitude around makes us feel more connected, fosters social networks, and gives meaning to life – emotional reinforcement for the months ahead. (In fact, an August study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that social connection was the strongest protective factor for depression.) Researchers also know that a small individual benefit experienced by a large group produces significant results. In other words, a little bit of gratitude goes a long way.

For Tim Gawley, a sociologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, the turning point happened during a phone conversation with his parents in July. He was in a rut, complaining to them about the pandemic restrictions, the uncertain state of the world, the racism and violence playing out in the United States. Enough, his parents told him. Consumed by big questions, he was missing out on the good in his own everyday life. “They weren’t mean about it,” he remembers, “but they basically told me to get a grip.”

But he couldn’t just switch off his negative emotions, so he decided to think about how to make others feel better. Standing in a long line at the grocery one day, he saw an older man waiting to pay cash for only two items, so he offered to ring them though the automatic checkout with his own groceries; the man could pay if he wanted. He has now made it a habit. “It wasn’t about feeling or receiving gratitude,” he says. “It became about what you can do for other people to make their world more full of grace.” He attributed this outward perspective to the reason he has been able to snap out of the ingratitude that had been pulling him down for months.

Around Thanksgiving, Dr. Eibach says, he is often conflicted about giving thanks for his good life while others unfairly struggle – this year, especially, when gratitude feels like a privileged state for the lucky. He suggests focusing our thanks on people, those pushing against the status quo, those in precarious jobs making sacrifices to keep us well, those who will see us though to the other side.

And the people right in front of us.

A few weeks ago, Chanel Attema’s family – her parents and two sisters – were all together for what may be the last time for many months. She sat back quietly, and watched them around the table, talking and laughing. “I just soaked in the moment.” And then she told them how thankful she was for each of them. “That’s the part that matters,” she says. “It is one thing to feel grateful, it is another thing to share it.”


How Canadians wish they cherished life

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Artist Jimmy Baptiste works on a mural in Ottawa this past July.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP/The Associated Press

How has the pandemic changed the way Canadians cope emotionally, and the things they value? This past spring, researchers in Nova Scotia tried to find out by having respondents keep daily diaries for two to four weeks. For these entries, participants – all women, of various ages and from across the country – answered the question: “Knowing what you know now about COVID-19, the pandemic, or the general state of the world and your life, if you could send a message to yourself before the pandemic began, what would you want to tell yourself?”

61-year-old, Edmonton

Be prepared to find the silver lining in the storm coming. It may take awhile but keep trying ... there has to be one. It is going to hurt but keep looking.

45-year-old, Victoria

Don’t take grabbing a quick item from the grocery store for granted, this is a luxury now. Be thankful for everything you have, and the ease with which you can obtain it.

19-year-old, Thunder Bay

I would tell myself to hug my teachers, I would tell myself to sit in the college for just a bit longer.

61-year-old, Halifax

Don't put off the things you want to do. Find ways to have hope. Find ways to contribute to the good in the world and thwart malice and greed.

69-year-old, Dartmouth, N.S.

Stay hopeful.

32-year-old, Innisfil, Ont.

Be kind to yourself and be prepared. Find time for yourself, life will slow down, and that's ok. Take time to learn lessons, take time to really appreciate everything. You are strong, creative and independent, which will all come in handy.

Source: COVID-19 Interpersonal Coping Study, led by Karen Blair (St. Francis Xavier University) and Kathryn Bell and Diane Holmberg (Acadia University)

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