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Workshop Handout: What Do Gratitude and Forgiveness Have to Do with Living and Aging Well?

NCOA-ASA Conference

Chicago, Illinois

March 2010


What Do Gratitude and Forgiveness Have to Do with Living and Aging Well?

Robert L. Weber, Ph.D.

Harvard Medical School



  • Develop a clear sense of the meaning of gratitude and forgiveness
  • Consider and appreciate what the research says about the impact of gratitude and forgiveness on the quality of life
  • Propose exercises that enhance the development of the capacity for both gratitude and forgiveness


     What do gratitude and forgiveness have to do with the above question? Plenty!

    George Vaillant, psychiatrist, researcher and author of Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life, concludes from his Harvard Study of Adult Development that “the study participants who have aged most successfully are those who worry less about cholesterol and waistlines and more about gratitude and forgiveness.

    Researchers in the emerging field of positive psychology, too, have noted the improvement in life satisfaction and quality of life that accompanies the enhancement of these capacities.  Gratitude and forgiveness require cultivation and nurturance.  It is through awareness of and attention to the details of our lives that we invite their full realization.

    This presentation will afford you the opportunity to reflect on gratitude and forgiveness in your own life.  The presenter will also suggest ways to enhance your capacity for gratitude and forgiveness so that the quality of your life and your life satisfaction will improve.


    Charles Eisenstein: Our Default State is Gratitude

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common “tool for tough times” is a personal version of the phrase, “I count my blessings” or “I shift into gratitude.”  The great spiritual traditions all teach the value of gratitude.

    . . . the philosopher Charles Eisenstein’s [contribution} is the most fundamental:

    Our default state is gratitude.  We are born helpless infants, creatures of pure need with little resources to give, yet we are fed, we are protected, we are clothed and held and soothed, without having done anything to deserve it, without offering anything in exchange.  This experience, common to everyone who has made it past childhood, informs our deepest spiritual intuitions.  Our default state is gratitude:  it is the truth of our existence.

                                                                –Charles Eisenstein

    Gratitude and Gratefulness-Stendl-Rast, “The Heart of Prayer”

    All prayer is essentially an act of gratitude.  Even the prayer of petition that boils up from some agonizing personal need includes, if it is authentic, a stated belief that “God’s will be done”-an expression of out utter dependence on God’s mercy.

    “To bless whatever there is, and for no other reason but simply because it is, that is what we are made for as human beings . . . .  Whether we understand this or not matters little.  Whether we agree or disagree makes no difference.  And in our heart of hearts we know it.”

    This book is about prayer and about gratitude.  It is also about awareness, and our ability to see into things, discovering the grace that awaits us in everyday life.  When we bless things simply because they are, we live life in its fullness.

    Surprise is the starting point.  Through surprise our inner eyes are opened to the amazing fact that everything is gratuitous.  Nothing at all can be taken for granted.  And if it cannot be taken for granted, it is gift.

    The universe is gratis.  It cannot be earned, nor need it be earned.

     From this simple fact of experience springs grateful living, grace-filled living.  Gratefulness is the heart’s full response to the gratuitousness of all that exists.  And gratefulness makes us graceful in a double sense.  In gratefulness we open ourselves to this gratuitous universe and so we become fully graced with it.  And in doing so we learn to move gracefully with its flow, as in a universal dance.



  • Minimally, . . . an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act . . . .


  • Furthermore, it is a disposition to feel and express consistently the emotion of thankfulness across situations and over time, and to do so appropriately.”


  • And it causes you to view someone else as a giver of some gift to yourself, and thus gladly to view yourself as a recipient of some gift from a benefactor, and thus as a kind of debtor.


    “. . . merely the secret hope of further favors.”

    Francois de la Rochefoucauld

    Marcello Spinella’s “Gratitude-Forgiveness Quadrant” (SEE BELOW)



                                                                BENEFICIAL                         HARMFUL


                ADAPTIVE                            Gratitude                              Forgiveness

                                                                                                                Anger to Punishment &

                MALADAPTIVE                   Indebtedness,                                 Retaliation


                                                                                                                Fear to Avoidance


    Select on important person from your past who had made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks.  (Do not confound this selection with new-found romantic love, or with the possibility of future gain.)  Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page.  Take your time composing this….  Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home.  It is important that you do this face-to-face, not just in writing or on the phone.  Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice.  Wine and cheese do not matter, but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift.  When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud, slowly, with expression, and with eye contact.  Then let the other person react unhurriedly.  Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you.


    Set aside five free minutes each night for the next two weeks, preferably right before brushing your teeth for bed.  Prepare a pad with one page for each of the next fourteen days.  The first night, take the Satisfaction with Life Scale and the General Happiness Scale and score them.  Then think back over the previous twenty-four hours and write down, on separate lines, up to five things in your life you are grateful or thankful for.  Common examples include “waking up this morning,” the generosity of friends,” God for giving me determination,” “wonderful parents,” “robust good health,” and the “Rolling Stones” (or some other artistic inspiration).  Repeat the Life Satisfaction and General happiness Scales on the final night, two weeks after you start, and compare your scores to the first night’s scores.  If this worked for you, incorporate it into your nightly routine.


     For each of the following statements and/or questions, please circle the point on the scale that you feel is most appropriate in describing you.

     1. In general I consider myself:

     1                              2                              3                              4                              5                              6                              7

     Not a very                                                                                                                                                           A very happy

      happy person                                                                                                                                                      person

     2. Compared to most of my peers, I consider myself:

     1                              2                              3                              4                              5                              6                              7

     Less happy                                                                                                                                                          More happy

     3. Some people are generally very happy.  They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.  To what extent does this characterization describe you?

     1                              2                              3                              4                              5                              6                              7

     Not at all                                                                                                                                                             A great deal

     4. Some people are generally not very happy.  Although they are not depressed , they never seem as happy as they might be.  To what extent does this characterization describe you?

     1                              2                              3                              4                              5                              6                              7

     A great deal                                                                                                                                                       Not at all

     Scoring instructions

     To score the test, total your answers for the questions and divide by 4.  The mean for adult Americans is 4.8.  Two-thirds of people score between 3.8 and 5.8.


     Below are five statements that you may agree or disagree with.  Using the 1-7 scale below, indicate your agreement with each item by placing the appropriate number on the line preceding that item.  Total the responses for all items.

     1 = Strongly disagree

    2 = Disagree

    3 = Slightly disagree

    4 = Neither agree nor disagree

    5 = Slightly agree

    6 = Agree

    7 = Strongly agree

     ___        In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

     ___        The conditions of my life are excellent.

     ___        I am completely satisfied with my life.

     ___        So far, I have gotten the important things I want in my life.

     ___        If I could live my life over, I would change nothing.


     30-35     Extremely satisfied, much above average

    25-29     Very satisfied, above average

    20-24     Somewhat satisfied, average for American adults

    15-19     Slightly dissatisfied, a bit below average

    10-14     Dissatisfied, clearly below average

    5-9          Very dissatisfied, much below average

     Irving Berlin, “Count Your Blessings” (the back-story to the song and lyrics)

    When I’m worried and I can’t sleep
    I count my blessings instead of sheep
    And I fall asleep
    Counting my blessings

    When my bankroll is getting small
    I think of when I had none at all
    And I fall asleep
    Counting my blessings

    I think about the nurs’ry

    And I picture curly heads

    And one by one I count them

    As they slumber in their beds

    (So) If you’re worried and you can’t sleep
    Just count your blessings instead of sheep
    And you’ll fall asleep
    Counting your blessings

      “What a wonderful life I’ve had: I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” Colette




    • Pardoning = a legal term
    • Condoning = a justification of the offense
    • Excusing = the offender had a good reason for committing the offense
    • Forgetting = the memory of the offense has simply decayed or slipped out of conscious awareness
    • Denying = an unwillingness to perceive the harmful injuries that one has incurred
    • Reconciliation = the restoration of a relationship


    • a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who has unjustly hurt us
    • while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her

     The REACH Exercise

    • R stands for RECALL the hurt
    • E stand for EMPATHIZE
    • A stands for giving the ALTRUISTIC gift of forgiveness
    • C stands for COMMIT yourself to forgive publicly
    • H stands for HOLD onto forgiveness


     R stands for recall the hurt, in as objective a way as you can.  Do not think of the other person as evil.  Do not wallow in self-pity.  Take deep. slow and calming breaths as you visualize the event

     E stands for empathize. Try to understand from the perpetrator’s point of view why this person hurt you.  This is not easy, but make up a plausible story that the transgressor might tell if challenged to explain.  To help you do this, remember the following:

    • When others feel their survival is threatened, they will hurt innocents
    • People who attack others are themselves usually in a state of fear, worry, and hurt
    • The situation a person finds himself in, and not his underlying personality, can lead to hurting
    • People often don’t think when they hurt others; they just lash out

     A stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness, another difficult step.  First recall a time you transgressed, felt guilty, and were forgiven.  This was a gift you were given by another person because you needed it, and you were grateful for this gift. Giving this gift usually makes us feel better.  But we do not give this gift out of self-interest.  Rather, we give it because it is for the trespasser’s own good.  Tell yourself you can rise above hurt and vengeance.  If you give the gift grudgingly, however, it will not set you free.

     C stands for commit yourself to forgive publicly.  You may write a “certificate of forgiveness,” write a letter of forgiveness to the offender, write it in their diary, write a poem or a song, or tell a trusted friend what they have done.  These are all contracts of forgiveness that lead to the final step.

     H stands for hold onto forgiveness.  This is another difficult step, because memories of the event will surely recur.  Forgiveness is not erasure; rather, it is a change in the tag lines that a memory carries.  It is important to realize that the memories do not mean forgiveness. Don’t dwell vengefully on the memories, and don’t wallow in them.  Remind yourself that you have forgiven, and read the documents you composed.

     REFERENCES: Gratitude and Forgiveness

    Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997).  Finding Flow.: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life . New York: Basic Books.

    Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising  the evidence, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1), 56-69.

    McCullough, M.E., Pargament, K. I., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000).  Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice, New York: The Guilford Press.

    Seligman, M. E. P. (2002).  Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.  New York: Free Press.

    Vaillant, G. E. (2002).  Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

    Vaillant, G. E., “A prescription for aging well,” The Boston Globe, 12/23/2001.

    Worthington, E. L. (1998).  Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological Research and Theological Perspectives.  Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation


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