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On the Practice of Gratitude

Friday November 07, 2014

“Blessed are those that can give without remembering 
and receive without forgetting.” - John Wooden

Thanksgiving Day is upon us.  So, perhaps, this is an opportune time to reflect on the meaning and practice of gratitude.

The perspective to be considered here is psychological in nature, namely the contributions of researchers like Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, Martin Seligman, and their colleagues.* 

Their empirical findings show that people who consistently practice gratitude report a host of measurable physical, psychological and interpersonal benefits. These include a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, enhanced sleep, higher threshold for aches and pain higher levels of positive emotions, increased optimism, decrease in feelings of loneliness and isolation, decreased vulnerability to suffer from anxiety and depression.

These multiple benefits can be obtained by anyone who chooses to cultivate gratitude and has the disposition to put out the effort. There are several empirically validated practices that can be adopted, like:

  • Keeping a daily gratitude journal reminding us of the gifts we have received and continue to receive.
  • Remembering the hard times we faced in the past, while recognizing where we are now and how far we have come along.
  • Asking ourselves 3 questions: What have I received from____?; What have I given to____?; What troubles and difficulties have I caused____?.
  • Learning prayers of gratitude.
  • Writing a thank-you note.

Gratitude, it is proposed, is not merely a feeling but a consciously chosen attitude affirming that life is good and worth living. It recognizes that the source of that goodness, the giver of gifts, is not ourselves but “others” --whether a Creator, providence, nature, the soil, trees, animals. It also recognizes that these “others” act towards us in a beneficial and selfless manner.

So, when I am grateful I recognize that I have no sense of entitlement to the gifts I am receiving.  They are not the result of my doing, my merit, my power, my control, or my social standing. The gifts are freely bestowed upon me by  “others” out of love, compassion, and generosity or, simply, grace.

This reframing of the “other” as unconditional giver and of me as undeserving receiver is transformative. It allows me to let go of my stubborn emphasis on I, me and mine while letting in a stance of receptive humility.

A question comes to mind. It would seem easier to be grateful when things are going well in life. But what about when things are stressful, when adversity hits with full force and challenges our ability to cope?  Those of us with a chronic, progressive and degenerative illness, as well as our families, have our moments of doubt.  We wonder, as the disease progresses and further debilitates us, whether we will be able to be grateful at all and receive the benefits that gratitude affords.

The response is that, in hard times, a grateful attitude will very much be possible to enact and will indeed help us to cope with adversity. For it is in times of turmoil when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life.  The available data indicate that in the midst of passivity and demoralization, gratitude energizes.   In the face of depression and despair, gratitude brings hope. When confronted with brokenness, gratitude heals. Further, when we are in crisis and feeling vulnerable, the ground is fertile for letting hubris go and letting receptive humility in.

So, let us give thanks. Let us count our blessings.  Let’s do it now.

Fill in the blank: Today, I am thankful for ____________________________.

* Emmons, R. (2007). Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier . New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Julio F. Angulo, PhDJulio F. Angulo, PhD
NWPF Blogger

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