Friday, October 07, 2005

Towards Better Dinner Parties

Now that I do not have a big project taking up all my time, I intend to entertain more. As I have said before, I am fascinated by positive psychology (the scientific study of happiness). And as part of my attempt to apply its lessons to my dinner parties, I am considering the introduction of a new ritual.

Before I explain, we must go back to my first Thanksgiving, back at Oxford in 1996. It was organized by some homesick American students that I knew. In those days I was severely malnourished, due to the Oxford student’s typical diet of custard and spotted dick. As soon as we sat down to dinner, I reached hungrily for the sweet potatoes. But before I could dig in, the hostess announced:
“OK everybody, let’s hold hands. I want to take a moment, go round the table, and all say what we’re thankful for.”

The English are a self-deprecating nation. The idea of publicly dwelling on all the good things in my life made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I wriggled in my chair as one by one, the other guests held forth about the dinner, the other guests, their families and recent academic triumphs. (One woman was grateful for Bobby, her golden retriever whom she had left back in New Jersey.)

Here in California, my dinner guests often pause before the meal begins to give thanks. Well, thanksgiving is the wrong word, since there is no higher being involved to whom the thanks are being given. It’s more a moment of appreciation—sometimes just of the meal and the company, sometimes of other things in their lives as well.

I found this a little cloying until I learned that science has shown that expressing gratitude makes you happier. In one experiment at the UC Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyuobmirsky asked subjects to keep a gratitude journal—a weekly record of things they were thankful for. Over a six-week period, her subjects’ overall satisfaction with life improved significantly (whereas the control group felt no better than before). And at UC Davis, psychologist Robert Emmons has found that gratitude journals improve physical health and raise energy levels.

It seems safe to assume that expressing gratitude will improve one’s dinner parties. Yes, it all sounds very new age, but that’s how people felt about meditation twenty years ago. Now it’s been shown that meditation has profound physiological and mental benefits. Could gratitude be the new meditation?

The problem is that, being relatively new, the moment of gratitude is not shaped by set conventions. Might I suggest the following?

Keep it short: Avoid the tendency to ramble.

Shun repetition: This is boring. If you’ve nothing new to say, say nothing.

Share: The first person to speak often takes all the low-hanging gratitude fruit (the meal, the present company), leaving others with little to say. Don’t be a gratitude hog.

When it came to my turn at that Oxford Thanksgiving, I mumbled something about being happy to be there. Repressed little soul in velvet trousers that I was back then, I did not imagine that I would one day move to a land where people regularly use “share” to mean “say.” And I certainly did not imagine that it would be a place where people like to give thanks all year round.


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