Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/24/2011

the affective trait of gratitude

valued activity

valued activity

On November 22, on a flight from Houston to New Orleans, I met a woman whose conversation over Thanksgiving dinner I wish I could hear. She is a lively, gregarious, self-assured but in no way overbearing grandmother—about my age, I’d guess—from Kansas City (I know about grandmothers from Kansas City, having had two of them myself).

The results from the current study add to the mounting evidence which suggests that feelings of gratitude may help people deal more effectively with the pernicious effects of stress (1).

She was travelling to New Orleans via Houston with her husband (a dapper grandfatherly type, equally pleasantly self-assured) to visit their grandchildren for Thanksgiving. They were having a good time both in the moment and in anticipation of being with their grandchildren.

November is the cruelest month (sorry, T.S., it’s not April). First, there’s the whole JFK thing on November 22nd —the day I (and all of my friends) first knew for sure society cannot be trusted. Three years after that, also on the 22nd, I proposed to the woman who eventually became my wife, one of the grandest missteps of both of our lives. Twenty years later on November 15, I reached the nadir of my alcoholism and began the now-25-year process of learning to live sober. Seventeen years later on November 12th, my partner died.  Three years later I spent ten November days in a mental hospital, not quite on a suicide watch, but never—even in my sleep—being left alone.

Unless you are a well-adjusted grandmother heading to spend a few days with her grandchildren over the holidays, November is a cruel month.

The one hitch in the Kansas City Grandmother’s travel plans was that she was not seated with her husband. They were each in a middle seat on the 737, one row apart. I know that was odd because the seat next to her was available an hour before departure time, and they gave it to someone else.

I don't want your elbow in my ribs

I don’t want your elbow in my ribs

Their less-than-ideal seating arrangement on the plane didn’t seem to bother them. It was, after all, a mere 70-minute trip. However, the man occupying the aisle seat next to her, almost immediately when he sat down turned to her and berated her for having her elbow too far over the armrest between them, finally saying much too loudly, “I don’t want your elbow in my ribs.” She answered with not a hint of anger in her voice, “I’m sure there is enough room for both of us,” and moved her elbow so she was not touching him.

. . . valued activities that seem to be unrelated to the primary difficulties of life, especially activities that are self-initiated, may in fact serve the indirect function of augmenting a sense of control, placing those difficulties in a broader perspective, and offsetting the distress occasioned by them with positive experiences and emotional states (2).

On Sunday, November 20, I substituted for the organist of the large Episcopal Church I joined a year ago because I love the music—especially the organist’s playing. I am not being disingenuously modest when I say that substituting for him is both daunting and a great honor. When I arrived in New Orleans, I checked my email and discovered a message from one of the church’s clergy.

. . . I wanted to tell you what a great job I thought you did on Sunday. The organ and piano sounded great and your timing and tempo were perfect. Thank you for substituting for James. It’s so great to have a sub that knows what they’re doing! Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

The (perhaps) obvious connection between the Kansas City Grandmother and my playing the organ on Sunday is my being given the opportunity to participate in a “valued activit[y] that seem[s]to be unrelated to the primary difficulties of life.”

My first difficulty getting from Dallas to New Orleans was that I went to the wrong airport. (DAL) on an itinerary confirmation means Love Field (where JFK was headed on November 22, 1963), not Dallas-Ft. Worth airport (DFW). How was I to know, having flown in and out of Dallas airports for only 17 years? That I was on the plane at all was a generous gift of Continental Airlines. It wasn’t easy for them. Weather had delayed all flights in and out of Houston, and the flight with the Kansas Grandmother was the third they assigned me to.

My second primary difficulty was that all airports freak me out. I always have seizures caused by the idiotic lighting, the noise, and the general hubbub. So what, one might ask. I know what’s happening, no one else does, and my seizures are in no way dangerous.

After the airline gave me the first ticket—without the normal surcharge they could have demanded for changing my ticket—because I was so upset, I called a friend whose advice I often rely on. He told me that, rather than being upset, I should look at the experience as an opportunity to practice gratitude—I was going to get to my family Thanksgiving in spite of going to the wrong airport.

I tried. I honestly did.

[Roman Emperor] Marcus Aurelius. . . in his recommendation on how to live life said, “Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end the journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew”(3).

Awaiting the family

Awaiting the family

When I remembered my friend’s advice, I apologized to the Kansas City Grandmother. She accepted my apology, and we chatted enough for me to find out the little I know about her.

Emotion may be studied as an immediate feeling state, as a more enduring climate of mood, or as affective trait. The term affective trait refers to how likely a given individual is to experience a particular emotion. Thus, the affective trait of gratitude may be thought of as a predisposition to experience gratitude [emphasis in original] (4).

I am somewhat perplexed by George Washington’s proclamation saying the 26th day of the cruelest month in 1789 should

. . . be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection. . .

Here I will wax more sentimental than I ever want to be. I don’t know about the “beneficent author;” however, I hope some day I may be possessed of “the affective trait of gratitude [that] may be thought of as a predisposition to experience gratitude.” I don’t think it has anything to do with turkeys. But I know I would feel better if didn’t berate Kansas City Grandmothers—or anyone else. Especially so soon after receiving the gift of participating in a valued activity that has nothing to do with the (perceived) difficulties of my life—and being given an almost-free plane ticket.
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(1) Krause, Neal. “Religious Involvement, Gratitude, And Change In Depressive Symptoms Over Time.” International Journal For The Psychology Of Religion 19.3 (2009): 155-172.
(2) Gottlieb, B. H. “Conceptual and measurement issues in the study of coping with chronic stress.” In B. H. Gottlieb (Ed.), Coping with chronic strain (pp. 3–40). New York: Plenum, 1997. Quoted in Krause.
(3) Eliot, C. W. The Apology, Phaedo and Crito of Plato; Golden Sayings of Epictetus; Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Part 2 Harvard classics. New York: Collier 1909. Also quoted in Krause.
(4) Russell L. Kolts, et al. “Gratitude And Happiness: Development Of A Measure Of Gratitude, And Relationships With Subjective Well-Being.” Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 31.5 (2003): 431.

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