Is it wise to be grateful?

For long, the elderly are known for their wisdom.
PHOTO: Is it wise to be grateful?

NEW YORK - At all ages, wisdom and a sense of gratitude appear to go hand in hand, especially for women, according to a recent study.

Among the participants, people who were considered wise by others also spontaneously expressed feelings of gratitude more frequently than others, Austrian researchers report.

"Wisdom is quite strongly related to gratitude," study author Judith Glück, of Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, wrote in an email to Reuters Health. "Wiser individuals are more grateful than others, and they are grateful for different things than others," she said.

Although considerable research has explored the nature of wisdom and of gratitude, there is little examining the connection between the two, Glück and her co-investigator Susanne König write in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

To investigate the relationship, the psychologists devised two small studies.

For the first study, they used newspaper and radio ads to solicit names of people considered to be wise. Of those nominated, 47 men and women, aged 60 years on average, agreed to participate. For comparison the study also included a random sample of 47 more adults who were similar in age and education.

All the participants were subsequently interviewed about their most difficult and best life events, as well as their most important life lessons.

Overall, 29 participants (31 percent) expressed gratitude to God, to other people or for the experience itself when they were interviewed about their most difficult life events, such as the death of a loved one, illness, divorce or war experiences.

Twenty participants (21 percent) expressed feelings of gratitude when asked about their best life events.

Such sentiments of gratitude were more frequently expressed by the people who had been nominated as wise, the researchers note.

Forty-seven percent of wise nominees versus 15 percent of the comparison group expressed gratitude, particularly relating to their current feelings about difficult times in their lives.

Similarly, 38 percent of the wise adults mentioned gratitude when describing their best life events, versus 4 percent of the comparison group.

A 76-year-old man nominated as wise, for example, was grateful for "a new life" after surviving a heart attack. "Because of this new life, I have new lessons to learn, and I have started to see life in a different way," he said.

Another wise nominee, an 81-year-old woman, expressed gratitude as she reflected on her best life events, saying, "I can only thank God, that my life went as it did."

Likewise, a 38-year-old man, also considered wise, was grateful for the experience of being dumped by his girlfriend. "I am very grateful that she ditched me back then, because otherwise my private life would have gone in a completely different direction."

This gratitude among wise individuals, even for negative experiences "suggests that they integrate difficult experiences into their life story as something through which they had grown," Glueck said.

"In terms of quality of life, the findings probably imply that living a good life involves an awareness of the good things in one's life, the resources and strengths that one has developed," she added.

In general, all the participants in the first study were most grateful for their family of origin, including their parents and siblings, their own children, their health, occupation, wealth and for other people, such as friends and colleagues.

Mark Baker, executive director of La Vie Counseling Centers in Pasadena, California, said his experience in psychotherapy has taught him "that those people who are able to be grateful during difficult circumstances learn more in their lives."

"We learn much more from our failures than our successes," he told Reuters Health in an email. "This produces greater wisdom," said Baker, a clinical psychologist and author of "Jesus, the greatest therapist who ever lived."

In the second study, the researchers investigated whether the first study's findings would hold among university students whose wisdom and gratitude were assessed via standardized psychological tests, rather than by nominations or interviews.

Despite the different methods and study group, wisdom was again linked to higher levels of gratitude, Glück and König report. Among the 443 students in the study, those who scored highest in wisdom also scored higher on measurements of their sense and frequency of gratitude.

These young adults, aged 28 years on average, were also most grateful for their family of origin as well as for other people and for health.

In both studies, women scored higher in gratitude than men and also expressed gratitude spontaneously during interviews more often than men - findings that Baker thinks may indicate a gender bias in the research.

When asked what they were thankful for, however, women and men had similar responses, the study authors note. This suggests "men and women might differ less in their experienced gratitude than in their readiness to spontaneously talk about gratitude," they write.

Glück and König conclude in their report, "Cultivating the experience and expression of gratitude may be conducive to dealing with the demands of life in a wise way, and in this sense, to living a good life."