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The Psychology Behind Giving Thanks

Interview With Dr. Paul Vitz

ARLINGTON, Virginia, NOV. 24, 2005 (Zenit) - The spirit of thanksgiving contributes to mental health and ultimately leads to God, says a Catholic psychologist.

Dr. Paul Vitz is a professor of psychology at the Arlington-based Institute for the Psychological Sciences and a professor emeritus of New York University. He has authored many books, and is co-editor of a new book called "The Self: Beyond the Post-modern Crisis" (ISI, 2006).

Q: As strands of modern psychology are rediscovering the effectiveness of the virtues in the well-being of the person, what interest has there been in the virtue of gratitude?

Vitz: Psychology has discovered gratitude as something to investigate probably only in the last five or 10 years. The best summary of what has been found is in the book that just came out this year and is called "The Handbook of Positive Psychology." In this book, Chapter 33 is a summary of what is known about gratitude.

The authors, R. Emmons and C. Shelton, point out that there has been some popular interest in gratitude in the last five or 10 years, but relatively little serious research in psychology.

So if some psychologist wants to become Mr. Gratitude or Ms. Gratitude, it is one of those fields that are sitting there, ready to be looked at seriously.

Q: What is it about gratitude that makes it such a useful virtue?

Vitz: Gratitude is a very positive virtue. It has positive thoughts associated with it, and above all, positive emotions.

It's the emotion of thankfulness for what other people, or God, have given to you. It brings peace, and it brings a kind of quiet joy. I think it's very clear that those are good emotions, good things to have.

We now know that our emotions can also cause bodily changes in us, so I'm convinced that gratitude is not only a positive thought and mentality, but also something good for your body.

Q: In your experience as a psychologist, have you seen any instances where developing gratitude helped a person to overcome a difficulty or illness?

Vitz: I think I have, but you know that you would have to run a controlled experiment to show it, and I haven't done that.

But let's look at the meaning of gratitude in light of the Faith. The very word for the Eucharist, the translation of its meaning is "thanksgiving." And thanksgiving is a way of expressing gratitude to God.

So it's at the center of the faith. The Eucharist is about Thanksgiving. It makes sense that Our Lord would have asked us to do something that was not only wise and spiritually sound, but psychologically good for us too.

Q: In other interviews we have spoken about the virtue of forgiveness and its relation to mental health. How can gratitude also play a role in the healing process?

Vitz: Let me propose this: One of the major barriers to forgiveness is anger, and resentment toward somebody. As long as that emotion is front-and-center in your mental life, it's very hard to forgive.

But if you can begin to be thankful for things that are present in your life, once you realize that you've been given things, and given them gratis, things change.

I mean, you did not pay God to give you life, and no human being paid God to send Our Lord among us. So when you realize the things that you have, that you've been given, and you are filled with gratitude, it puts anger, bitterness and resentment aside.

When you realize what's been given to you, just out of generosity then I believe it is easier to forgive. Because to forgive someone is to give them something. It is to give up your debt to them. It is as if they owe you a hundred dollars, they owe you this or they owe you that, an apology or whatever, and you give up the claim to it.

So you are giving something to them in the way that God, life and others have given to you, that you yourself have shown gratitude for.

Q: We have already spoken a little about the meaning of the Eucharist and how it is "thanksgiving." But how else does our faith teaches us gratitude in a deeper way, a way that goes beyond positive psychology's definition of gratitude?

Vitz: It certainly goes beyond positive psychology. It's really gratitude to God.

It is gratitude for sending Jesus so that our sins are atoned for. It is the gratitude for all the gifts that God has given us, the people we know, the beauty of the world around us.

Gratitude and love are very closely related. Thus, since we are at the deepest level called to love God and love others, gratitude facilitates that. Gratitude moves you toward love, and since God is love, gratitude at the very deepest level moves us toward God.


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Thanksgiving, God, Health, Virtue

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