Are you as grateful as you deserve to be?

Are you as grateful as you deserve to be?

Gratitude is not only a great feeling but a healthy one.
Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.com

As a physician, I have helped to care for many patients and families whose lives have been turned upside down by serious illnesses and injuries. In the throes of such catastrophes, it can be difficult to find cause for anything but lament. Yet Thanksgiving presents us with an opportunity to develop one of the healthiest, most life-affirming and convivial of all habits – that of counting and rejoicing in our blessings.

Gratitude’s benefits

Research shows that grateful people tend to be healthy and happy. They exhibit lower levels of stress and depression, cope better with adversity and sleep better. They tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Even their partners tend to be more content with their relationships.

Perhaps when we are more focused on the good things we enjoy in life, we have more to live for and tend to take better care of ourselves and each other.

When researchers asked people to reflect on the past week and write about things that either irritated them or about which they felt grateful, those tasked with recalling good things are more optimistic, feel better about their lives, and actually visit their physicians less.

It is no surprise that receiving thanks makes people happier, but so does expressing gratitude. An experiment that asked participants to write and deliver thank-you notes found large increases in reported levels of happiness, a benefit that lasted for an entire month.

Philosophical roots

Giving thanks is important for our psyches and our souls.
Love You Stock/Shutterstock.com

One of the greatest minds in Western history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued that we become what we habitually do. By changing our habits, we can become more thankful human beings.

If we spend our days ruminating on all that has gone poorly and how dark the prospects for the future appear, we can think ourselves into misery and resentment.

But we can also mold ourselves into the kind of people who seek out, recognize and celebrate all that we have to be grateful for.

This is not to say that anyone should become a Pollyanna, ceaselessly reciting the mantra from
Votaire’s Candide, “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” There are injustices to be righted and wounds to be healed, and ignoring them would represent a lapse of moral responsibility.

But reasons to make the world a better place should never blind us to the many good things it already affords. How can we be compassionate and generous if we are fixated on deficiency? This explains why the great Roman statesman Cicero called gratitude not only the greatest of virtues but the “parent” of them all.

Religious roots

Gratitude is deeply embedded in many religious traditions. In Judaism, the first words of the morning prayer could be translated, “I thank you.” Another saying addresses the question, “Who is rich?” with this answer: “Those who rejoice in what they have.”

From a Christian perspective, too, gratitude and thanksgiving are vital. Before Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples, he gives thanks. So vital a part of Christian life is gratitude that author and critic G.K. Chesterton calls it “the highest form of thought.”

Gratitude also plays an essential role in Islam. The 55th chapter of the Quran enumerates all the things human beings have to be grateful for – the sun, moon, clouds, rain, air, grass, animals, plants, rivers and oceans – and then asks, “How can a sensible person be anything but thankful to God?”

Other traditions also stress the importance of thankfulness. Hindu festivals celebrate blessings and offer thanks for them. In Buddhism, gratitude develops patience and serves as an antidote to greed, the corrosive sense that we never have enough.

Roots even in suffering

In his 1994 book, A Whole New Life, the Duke University English Professor Reynolds Price describes how his battle with a spinal cord tumor that left him partially paralyzed also taught him a great deal about what it means to really live.

After surgery, Price describes “a kind of stunned beatitude.” With time, though diminished in many ways by his tumor and its treatment, he learns to pay closer attention to the world around him and those who populate it.

Reflecting on the change in his writing, Price notes that his books differ in many ways from those he penned as a younger man. Even his handwriting, he says, “looks very little like that of the man he was at the time of his diagnosis.”

“Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, and with more air and stride. And it comes down the arm of a grateful man.”

A brush with death can open our eyes. Some of us emerge with a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of each day, a clearer sense of our real priorities and a renewed commitment to celebrating life. In short, we can become more grateful, and more alive, than ever.

Practicing gratitude

When it comes to practicing gratitude, one trap to avoid is locating happiness in things that make us feel better off – or simply better – than others. In my view, such thinking can foster envy and jealousy.

There are marvelous respects in which we are equally blessed – the same sun shines down upon each of us, we all begin each day with the same 24 hours, and each of us enjoys the free use of one of the most complex and powerful resources in the universe, the human brain.

Much in our culture seems aimed to cultivate an attitude of deficiency – for example, most ads aim to make us think that to find happiness we must buy something. Yet most of the best things in life – the beauty of nature, conversation and love – are free.

There are many ways to cultivate a disposition of thankfulness. One is to make a habit of giving thanks regularly – at the beginning of the day, at meals and the like, and at day’s end.

Likewise, holidays, weeks, seasons, and years can be punctuated with thanks – grateful prayer or meditation, writing thank-you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and consciously seeking out the blessings in situations as they arise.

Gratitude can become a way of life, and by developing the simple habit of counting our blessings, we can enhance the degree to which we are truly blessed.

[ Thanks for reading! We can send you The Conversation’s stories every day in an informative email. Sign up today. ]The Conversation

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Thankful Blues

The Thankful Blues

BLUES SINGERS: Until their departure last night, Howard University's Afro-Blue turned heads with their tight, melodic sounds on NBC's "The Sing-Off."

“In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” 
1 Thessalonians 5:18 (KJV)

In everything.

Really.

Everything.

As I reflect on this Thanksgiving holiday, I can’t avoid thinking about many of the difficult things I’ve endured in the last 12 months.

Five months ago, I lost a part-time job in church ministry, a job in which I learned a lot, grew a lot, made a lot of great relationships, and felt a such a keen sense of calling and belonging that it became a core part of my identity.

Less than a week ago, I lost another part-time job in public speaking, a job in which I learned a lot, grew a lot, made a lot of great relationships, and felt such a keen sense of calling and belonging that it became a core part of my identity.

In both cases, I was immediately aware of some of the logistical benefits of freeing that time up to pursue other things, but that knowledge did nothing to blunt the sting of loss.

Losing those jobs hurt, and hurt bad.

Times like these, I have a hard time giving thanks.

Until, that is, I remember that many of the things I’m currently thankful for now — areas of success or blessing or peaceful satisfaction … these things have all been intimately intertwined with events and seasons of crushing pain and humbling defeat.

Struggles embattled give way to humility embraced, which leads to victory empowered.

Because this is beginning to sound a bit too much like a motivational poster, let me give you an example.

While I was on staff at my last church, I developed a technique to leading worship music that helped to compensate for a lack of a consistent band. It involved creating and replaying accompaniment tracks in the form of patterns, which helped me with all of my multitasking (leading vocals, leading the band, directing the singers, et cetera). I got pretty good at it, and when I realized that there were no existing resources to help others do the same thing, I decided to start one.

This was a pivotal decision for me, because it represented a strategic convergence of so many of my interests. Beginning this work, I felt as though I’d finally identified my calling from God. I was excited, motivated, and full of vision.

The irony of the situation, however, was that despite the fact that the genesis of my idea flowed out of my passion for multicultural corporate worship music, the logistical and emotional demands of my church job were such that I was unable to make much headway on my idea. So being asked to resign was, while difficult and painful, quite beneficial to the long-term success of my entrepreneurial ministry venture. It was, in many ways, the best-case scenario — despite the fact that it felt like my world was coming to an end.

Struggles embattled, humility embraced, victory empowered.

This is a lesson that all successful people have to embrace at some point, whether it’s Conan O’Brien getting kicked off The Tonight Show, or Afro-Blue being booted off The Sing Off.

And believe me, I was among the legion of fans shocked and offended by that last outcome, reading Ben Folds‘ explanation did little to assuage my anger. That Conan thing was sad and ridiculous, but this Afro-Blue thing feels like a travesty.

Yet, as I look back on that whole Tonight Show brouhaha, I can tell that Conan has become better for it. Conan himself was able to articulate this painful-yet-positive dynamic when he said the following:

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.… it’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.

My man Coco said these words last June during his commencement speech at Dartmouth College, an ironic note since Afro-Blue was eliminated from The Sing-Off in favor of The Dartmouth Aires, the Ivy League show choir from Hanover. And I have no doubt that the men and women of Afro-Blue, the pride of Howard University and DC’s finest, will continue to exhibit the poise, heart and talent that propelled them to their fourth-place showing on the megahit NBC a cappella singing competition.

I’m hopeful, of course, and not just for the obvious reason that all of the singers in Afro-Blue still have a tremendous future in music ahead of them (especially lead vocalist Danielle Withers).

I’m hopeful because, in the grand scheme of things, God can and does use all things to take his children and mold them into the people that He wants and calls them to be. And the extent to which we become more like Him is the extent to which we submit to His will, which sometimes requires profound heartbreak.

So in the meantime, I will have to resign myself to replaying Afro-Blue’s cover of “Put Your Records On” over and over, because … wow, that is my jam right now.

And for this, as for so many other things in life, good and bad, I will do what Paul charged the church in Thessalonica to do.

I will give thanks.