The politics of a more grateful nation

by John MacBeath Watkins

I dined with some Quaker friends tonight, and we didn't all arrive at the table at once, which caused us to miss the blessing. I pointed out that if there is a God, he knows we're grateful, because he's omniscient. The blessing is, of course, for the people who say it.

This got me thinking about the positive effects of gratitude, and the way the American zeitgeist may be changing from a nation that started worshiping greed in the 1980s into a more grateful (and therefore happier) nation. The example at hand is the way voters reacted to the competing messages of the two political conventions.

The polls are in, and I confess myself a bit surprised to learn that the Republican convention did not produce a bounce for Mitt Romney, and the Democratic convention produced one for Barack Obama.

To me, that's surprising, because one would expect voters to already know Obama, and for many, the Republican convention was an introduction to Romney.

Now, it could be something as simple as the fact that when people are exposed to the actual Obama and he doesn't turn out to be the monster portrayed in the Republican ads, they recall why they like him. But given the fact that modern political conventions are really just very long adverts for the parties, I have to think there's a difference in the messages that's making the difference.

I believe that difference is gratitude. My cousin, Phil Watkins, is a psychology professor at Eastern Washington University who researches the effect of gratitude on people.

It turns out that gratitude can have a powerful, positive effect. Here's a quote from a Psychology Today article Phil was interviewed for:
"The most important blessings are the ones that are most consistent," such as family, health and home, says Philip Watkins, an Eastern Washington University psychologist. "And those are the ones we take for granted." Grateful reflection helps you pick out and savor the good in life, even if the good isn't flashy.

What's more, gratitude turns your attention to what you do have instead of what you don't, Watkins suggests. Consistently ungrateful people tend to think that material goods, such as a big-screen TV, or winning the lottery will make them happy. On the other hand, people who recognize the blessings they have tend to think they'll get happiness from things like fulfilling relationships—which, research shows, are the real sources of satisfaction. Because grateful people don't fixate on money or material goods, they may cut back on envy and nagging comparisons with the Joneses.
The Republican's "We built it" theme sounded good to them, but it left the public unmoved. The idea was that Democrats were trying to take away credit from the "job creators" and such for their success.

Democratic speaker after speaker at their convention talked, instead, about all the people who had helped them. People listening to Michelle Obama talk about the sacrifices her father made to send her to college were moved by that. Voters listening to Republicans talking as if they owed nothing to anyone were not moved by that.

As Phil's research shows, gratitude can help people focus on what they have instead of what they don't have, which is a pretty good strategy for the incumbent party in a period of high unemployment. And anything that helps people deal with trauma is a good message as well. From the same Psychology Today article:
Gratitude may chase away thoughts far worse than a desire for a big-screen TV. Traumatic memories fade into the background for people who regularly feel grateful, Watkins's experiments show. Troublesome thoughts pop up less frequently and with less intensity, which suggests that gratitude may enhance emotional healing. Thankfulness helps the brain fully process events, Watkins speculates. Grateful people achieve closure by making sense of negative events so that they mesh with a generally positive outlook.

Through the past year, Republicans have framed any desire to see less inequality in our society as "envy," a rather peculiar notion unless, of course, you are well-off and ungrateful. The focus of the convention may have just been strategy -- the challenger wants people to feel dissatisfied with the status quo, not help them adjust to it -- but the framing of calls for less inequality as envy speaks of a deeper mind set.

So my question is, has the Republican Party made itself the party of the ungrateful only as a strategy for this particular presidential race, or is this going to be an ongoing philosophy? If it's the latter, the party may be facing some hard times, because outcome of the conventions shows that this doesn't resonate the way that the Democrats' message of gratitude and giving back does.

To wish the Republicans well, I would have to hope that the ungrateful party on display at Tampa was a reflection of Mitt Romney's world view, not of the average Republican's. Should Romney lose, such an influence would be easy to shake off. If the ungratefulness is an identity the party base has taken on, that's much worse news for the party and, in my opinion, the nation, which does best with two parties that both function well enough to tackle the nation's problems.

Could we be leaving behind the era of "greed is good" and entering one of "gratitude is great?" If the zeitgeist is changing in that direction, I think it will help the country pull together to solve its problems.


  1. I mostly avoid watching thee conventions because they ARE just advertising in my estimation, so I do appreciate your take on them. Thank you. I do hope we are maturing into a nation with a more positive, less greedy and fearful outlook.


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