Eventually social science works its way around to confirming eternal verities. So it is with gratitude.
An article in a psychological journal a few years ago noted that "throughout history, religious, theological and philosophical treatises have viewed gratitude as integral to well-being." Psychology has recently worked to quantify the wisdom of the ages and confirmed - sure enough - it was correct.
A raft of recent research has established that grateful people are happier people. They are less depressed and less stressed. They are less likely to envy others and more likely to want to share. They even sleep better. As the journal article put it, empirical work "has suggested gratitude is as strongly correlated with well-being as are other positive traits, and has suggested that this relationship is causal."
Gratitude constitutes what philosopher David Hume called a "calm passion." It doesn't have the theatrical potential of anger and hatred, or courage and sacrifice. Nonetheless, there's a reason it has been considered central to the good life and a good society by all major religions and by thinkers stretching from Cicero ("Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others") to Oprah ("Whenever you can't think of something to be grateful for, remember your breath").
Gratitude acknowledges our dependence on others and the debt we owe because of it. Grateful people want, somehow, to return the favor of their undeserved windfall. It is a sentiment that, in the jargon, is "pro-social." A leading figure in its study, Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, maintains that it binds us to others beyond the ties of family and of commercial transactions. Gratitude is at the root of patriotism, of the impulse to preserve and improve our patrimony. In a culture that tends to celebrate self-glorification, gratitude points us beyond our own demands and discontents. It inclines us to see all around us a world of gifts.
What did we do to inherit a country that is free and prosperous? To deserve Charlie Parker or Mark Twain? To build the Golden Gate Bridge or the Chrysler Building? To measure up to the beauties of the Catholic Mass or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Or simply to prove worthy of traffic lights and potable water?
Without gratitude, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, "We are left with the numbing, benumbing thought that we owe nothing to Plato and Aristotle, nothing to the prophets who wrote the Bible, nothing to the generations who fought for freedoms activated in the Bill of Rights." He called for "a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us."
John Adams captured the grateful attitude when he acknowledged the hardships of this vale of tears while celebrating it all the same (if in anachronistic language): "Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding."
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review, a magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr., featuring conservative commentary on American politics.