Practicing Gratitude

Prevention Magazine . November, 2004
Why being thankful is the secret to a happier, healthier life.

One snowy winter’s day several years ago, I decided to take a relaxing walk in the mountain town where I live. Later that afternoon, I was scheduled for a breast biopsy to determine whether calcifications found on a mammogram indicated cancer, and a walk in the beauty of nature seemed like my best shot at calming down. Trotting down the road, I was all but blind to the majesty of the azure sky and snowcapped mountains. My mind was otherwise occupied, obsessing about dire medical possibilities.

I was suddenly jarred out of my catastrophic fantasies by a searing pain in my hindquarters. A neighbor’s German shepherd had made an end run around Max, our loyal rottweiler, and bitten me unceremoniously on the behind. Time stood still. How could this be happening today? My mind began to run a new horror film that eclipsed the old one, this time starring my bare butt being sutured in the Boulder Community Hospital emergency room while I was started on a painful series of rabies shots. Now I would surely miss the biopsy and have to endure that second round of medical torture on another day.

I dashed behind a bush to assess the damage. Miracle of miracles, the imprint of a perfect set of canine teeth adorned my left buttock, but the skin was unbroken. Yes! I actually jumped for joy, thrilled to be spared from dog-bite disaster. The relief was so profound that gratitude flooded all my senses. The sky appeared preternaturally blue and the frost-covered pines were so vibrant that they seemed to breathe. Rather than feeling like an isolated person walking in nature, I felt knitted into the fabric of nature itself. The day was young, life was beautiful… and I could get to my biopsy appointment on time. Lucky me!

Lest I leave you in suspense, the test was negative. Another chance for gratitude, and a sweet reminder that life is very precious. It’s easy to forget that just being alive is a blessing, and that the world is full of wonder and opportunity, even when life seems less than perfect. Remembering our blessings seems an apropos theme for this month, because that is the true promise of the Thanksgiving holiday. Family time and good food are an important focus, but thanksgiving can also be an attitude for life, as well as a holiday that comes once a year. When gratitude is the lens through which we view the world, hassles and stress recede, and our true nature of happiness shines through.

There is evidence for this. Research suggests that grateful people have more energy and optimism, are less bothered by life’s hassles, are more resilient in the face of stress, have better health, and suffer less depression than the rest of us. People who practice gratitude—and yes, it is something one can learn and improve—are also more compassionate, more likely to help others, less materialistic, and more satisfied with life.

Two psychologists, Robert Emmons, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough, PhD, of the University of Miami, conducted a study on gratitude and thankfulness. They divided hundreds of people into three groups, each of which was instructed to keep a different type of journal. One group recorded daily events, another recorded hassles. People in the third group made lists of what they were grateful for. This last group reported more alertness and optimism and better progress toward goals. These people also felt more loved. As my mother used to say, you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar, and when you’re appreciative and kind, other people mirror that back.

Research on grateful people also finds that they report more experiences like the one I had after the dog bite: a sense of the interconnectedness of all life. Thanksgiving is a great time to aspire to that state of mind. The holiday can make us more spiritual, whether or not we are religious, and it is a natural time to flex those gratitude muscles.

If people were to make gratitude a daily practice, fear and hatred might finally be overcome by love and compassion. But even if we can’t change the world, we can always change ourselves. With that in mind, several years ago I decided to make gratitude and appreciation part of my daily spiritual practice. I’d found myself taking life for granted and complaining when little things weren’t to my liking. Because gratitude is a great antidote to whining and nit-picking, I decided to adopt an easy exercise from a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, who’s also a student of Eastern meditation traditions.

His idea is that gratefulness cultivates mindfulness, the ability to be present in life with the open-heartedness of a child. He suggests that before bed, you give thanks for one thing for which you’ve never before thought of being grateful. For example, last night I focused on being thankful for having spent the afternoon with a wonderful couple who’d recently moved to the area. This simple practice really does make you more mindful.

When you practice gratitude, you naturally search for kindness, love, and goodness throughout the day so that you’ll have something new in mind to be grateful for when bedtime rolls around.

“People who practice gratitude are more compassionate, less materialistic, and more satisfied with life”

Gratitude Tips

  • Teach your kids. If you have children, giving thanks before bedtime can be a delightful ritual that helps develop a healthy and loving attitude toward life.
  • Appreciate people. Make it an everyday practice. Tell them what a good job they do, how kind they are, or how nice they lookas long as it’s absolutely true.
  • Put it in a letter. Write to a person who made a difference in your life this year. Be specific about how and why their action enriched your life.
  • Give thanks. This Thanksgiving, give each person at your holiday gathering the chance to tell the others what they are particularly grateful for this year. The window this provides into the good hearts of others is priceless. It’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

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