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The ‘japanese secret’ of gratitude when growing old


Iza Kavedzija, a professor at Exeter University in England, interviewed elderly Osakans over more than a decade. She has just published Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan.

She found, Osakans in their 70s, 80s and 90s would express gratitude while describing their life stories. “I am grateful (arigatai),” they would say, with a meaningful, thoughtful pause just before using the phrase.

“Many of my interview recordings, captured the same space of silence before an expression of gratitude,” Kavedzija writes in the latest edition of the journal Aging & Anthropology.

Japan is the oldest society in the world. Yet somehow it is doing more than a few things right when it comes to caring for the elderly. In the past year, for example, Japan has managed to suffer a death rate from COVID that is, so far, a staggering 93 % below that of Germany and 96 % below that of the United States.

Where Japan has trod, other countries will follow. The number of over-65s in America has nearly doubled in 20 years. By 2035 the world are expected to have more senior citizens than minors, for the first time in history.

In Japan, economists have been worried about the growing number of elderly who are at economic risk from an “increasingly threadbare social security net,” Kavedzija reports, but many of the elderly are in better psychological shape than economists might have predicted.

Among the reasons for this findings are faith in the future, social connections, and this “attitude of gratitude.” Many of the people she interviewed were reluctant to say they were “satisfied” with life, because it might sound like bragging. Instead they would say “I am grateful.”

“This gratitude was not merely a transitory emotion, but rather a more consistent and enduring attitude towards the world,” she reports. “Thanks are giving when eating or receiving food, even if the food is consumed alone, bought and prepared by yourself,” she adds.

Kavedzija’s findings add to the growing body of evidence that feeling gratitude is good for us in multiple ways. Researchers have even found that the results of gratitude, and keeping a “gratitude journal,” show up in heart health and on functional MRI scans of brain activity.

What are the keys to keeping a gratitude journal and reaping the benefits? Experts connected to the University of California at Berkeley offer nine tips. The first task is to spend about 15 minutes on your journal each time, write one to three times a week, and list about five things for which you’re grateful.

And it adds a crucial piece of advice familiar to anyone who’s studied the ancient Stoics: “Consider what your life would be like without certain people or things, rather than just tallying up all the good stuff,” it says. “Be grateful for the negative outcomes you avoided and try not to take that good fortune for granted.”