|Interview With Dr. Paul Vitz
ARLINGTON, Virginia, 23 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)
The spirit of thanksgiving
contributes to mental health and ultimately leads to God, says a
Dr. Paul Vitz is a professor of psychology at the Arlington-based
Institute for the Psychological Sciences and a professor emeritus of New
York University. He has authored many books, and is co-editor of a new
book called "The Self: Beyond the Post-modern Crisis" (ISI, 2006).
Q: As strands of modern psychology are rediscovering the effectiveness
of the virtues in the well-being of the person, what interest has there
been in the virtue of gratitude?
Vitz: Psychology has discovered gratitude as something to investigate
probably only in the last five or 10 years. The best summary of what has
been found is in the book that just came out this year and is called
"The Handbook of Positive Psychology." In this book, Chapter 33 is a
summary of what is known about gratitude.
The authors, R. Emmons and C. Shelton, point out that there has been
some popular interest in gratitude in the last five or 10 years, but
relatively little serious research in psychology.
So if some psychologist wants to become Mr. Gratitude or Ms. Gratitude,
it is one of those fields that are sitting there, ready to be looked at
Q: What is it about gratitude that makes it such a useful virtue?
Vitz: Gratitude is a very positive virtue. It has positive thoughts
associated with it, and above all, positive emotions.
It's the emotion of thankfulness for what other people, or God, have
given to you. It brings peace, and it brings a kind of quiet joy. I
think it's very clear that those are good emotions, good things to have.
We now know that our emotions can also cause bodily changes in us, so
I'm convinced that gratitude is not only a positive thought and
mentality, but also something good for your body.
Q: In your experience as a psychologist, have you seen any instances
where developing gratitude helped a person to overcome a difficulty or
Vitz: I think I have, but you know that you would have to run a
controlled experiment to show it, and I haven't done that.
But let's look at the meaning of gratitude in light of the Faith. The
very word for the Eucharist, the translation of its meaning is
"thanksgiving." And thanksgiving is a way of expressing gratitude to
So it's at the center of the faith. The Eucharist is about Thanksgiving.
It makes sense that Our Lord would have asked us to do something that
was not only wise and spiritually sound, but psychologically good for us
Q: In other interviews we have spoken about the virtue of forgiveness
and its relation to mental health. How can gratitude also play a role in
the healing process?
Vitz: Let me propose this: One of the major barriers to forgiveness is
anger, and resentment toward somebody. As long as that emotion is
front-and-center in your mental life, it's very hard to forgive.
But if you can begin to be thankful for things that are present in your
life, once you realize that you've been given things, and given them
gratis, things change.
I mean, you did not pay God to give you life, and no human being paid
God to send Our Lord among us. So when you realize the things that you
have, that you've been given, and you are filled with gratitude, it puts
anger, bitterness and resentment aside.
When you realize what's been given to you, just out of generosity then I
believe it is easier to forgive. Because to forgive someone is to give
them something. It is to give up your debt to them. It is as if they owe
you a hundred dollars, they owe you this or they owe you that, an
apology or whatever, and you give up the claim to it.
So you are giving something to them in the way that God, life and others
have given to you, that you yourself have shown gratitude for.
Q: We have already spoken a little about the meaning of the Eucharist
and how it is "thanksgiving." But how else does our faith teaches us
gratitude in a deeper way, a way that goes beyond positive psychology's
definition of gratitude?
Vitz: It certainly goes beyond positive psychology. It's really
gratitude to God.
It is gratitude for sending Jesus so that our sins are atoned for. It is
the gratitude for all the gifts that God has given us, the people we
know, the beauty of the world around us.
Gratitude and love are very closely related. Thus, since we are at the
deepest level called to love God and love others, gratitude facilitates
that. Gratitude moves you toward love, and since God is love, gratitude
at the very deepest level moves us toward God.