The Difference Between Elvis and Me

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and not just because of the four-day weekend, the dinner with our wonderful cousins in San Rafael, and the scrumptious pies The Fabulous Wife bakes from scratch (apple and pecan this year). I like the idea of Thanksgiving: expressing gratitude for all we have.

Back in July I wrote a little facetiously about happiness studies. But it is a legitimate line of intellectual inquiry, and the University of California is leading the way through the efforts of Davis professor Robert Emmons and Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. One of the core premises of the GGSC is that:

Studying the roots of good, healthy, and positive behavior is just as important as studying human pathologies. To promote individual and social well-being, science must examine how people overcome difficult circumstances and how they develop positive emotions and relationships.

In an article published a decade ago, Emmons noted that “After years of ignoring gratitude — perhaps because it appears, on the surface, to be a very obvious emotion, lacking in interesting complications — researchers have found that gratitude contributes powerfully to human health, happiness, and social connection.”

I can vouch for that.

From my teens to early forties, I suffered from depression. It wasn’t due to any chemical imbalance. Rather, it was an existential depression, an inevitable byproduct of awareness. To eliminate depression I thought I’d have to sacrifice my intellectual and spiritual impulses. But dispensing with those would give me no reason to live. So I accepted the curse — even reveled in it to a degree, imagining it made me deeper than those without it.

Ultimately, though, existential depression is an un-intellectual, un-spiritual preoccupation with what you haven’t got; you’re lacking in some way (or many ways) and hate yourself for it. To my surprise, as the new century approached, it became easier for me to recognize how much I had. It dawned on me that life was indeed unfair — in my favor.

The more grateful I became for the accidents of birth and the myriad kindnesses that gave me a better life than 95 percent of all human beings who ever lived, the more my depression receded. I still get depressed on occasion, particularly after a fractious day at work. But counting my many blessings eventually restores my equilibrium.

So now you know the difference between Elvis Presley and me. While he wondered why every day can’t be like Christmas, I wonder why every day can’t be like Thanksgiving.

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If you’re interested in Emmons’s work, I recommend starting with his 2003 study, co-authored by the University of Miami’s Michael McCullough, called Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Or, if you want to bypass the scholarly rigamarole, try this 2011 article, Why Gratitude is Good.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.