Thankfulness, Money or Spend — Which Offers the Greatest Return on Contentment?

We can all recall from an early age having been reminded to say "Thank you", "Yes please", and "You're welcome". Such phrases comprise a portion of what might be called a transactional cycle of reciprocity. Alongside these admonishments and reminders, we were also reared with clichés like "Money doesn't buy happiness" and "Tis far better to give than to receive". And as adults in our Western consumer society, most of us -- at one time or another -- have ignored these teachings and embarked on personal spending sprees and maxed out a credit card or two, only to discover that the emotional "buy high" is short lived with long-term consequences. As this process generationally repeats with our children and grandchildren, let's revisit the efficacy of these teachings and protests.

Back in September, Live Science reported on a "new study [by] Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton of Princeton University ... figuring out whether and how income affected each of the two well-being types: emotional well-being and overall life satisfaction." In analyzing "more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 U.S. residents conducted by the Gallup Organization", they found that while income matters to a point, "beyond an average of $75,000, annual income no longer played a role in boosting how happy a person felt daily." Live Science also found that "these findings agree with a similar analysis of global happiness, in which the wealthiest nations, such as the United States, weren't necessarily the happiest ... the United States came in at No. 26 out of 132 nations on daily happiness." So regardless of the methodology employed, the affirmation that money doesn't buy happiness per se, appears legitimate beyond its intuitive validity.

Deriving happiness and contentment from simply being thankful or grateful, however, may require more convincing. In a deep dive into contemporary research on the benefits of gratitude upon contentment and well being, yesterday's Health Journal in the WSJ offers a great deal of insight. The Journal claims that "according to studies conducted over the past decade ... Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not ... They're also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections." These assertions arise from "the 'positive psychology' movement, which focuses on developing strengths rather than alleviating disorders [and that] Cultivating gratitude is also a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which holds that changing peoples' thought patterns can dramatically affect their moods."

While our elders may not have had source references for imploring us to be grateful as kids, we now do. To wit, "researchers are finding that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents. Kids who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don't ..." Jeffrey J. Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "and colleagues surveyed 1,035 high-school students and found that the most grateful had more friends and higher GPAs, while the most materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life."

Some of what we were told to do as kids surely sank-in, but directives aren't interactive and definitely fall short. This Thanksgiving, despite our slow economic recovery and inevitable problems of life, let's all consider role modeling for our children and others, some heartfelt gratitude for those who have changed our lives for the better and everything else for which we can be truly grateful. It will likely induce a positive return on contentment for all.

William Busch

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