“If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart
Gratitude is more then an attitude, it is a way of being. It is a spiritual practice, which has been shown to have significant impacts on the quality of one’s life. Two psychologists, Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, wrote an article about an experiment they conducted on gratitude and its impact on well-being. The study split several hundred people into three different groups and all of the participants were asked to keep daily diaries. The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day without being told specifically to write about either good or bad things; the second group was told to record their unpleasant experiences; and the last group was instructed to make a daily list of things for which they were grateful. The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. In addition, those in the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly, and made greater progress toward achieving personal goals.
Dr. Emmons, who has been studying gratitude for almost ten years and is considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on gratitude, is author of the book, “Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier”. The information in this book is based on research involving thousands of people conducted by a number of different researchers around the world. One of the things these studies show is that practicing gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. This is significant, among other things, because just as there’s a certain weight that feels natural to your body and which your body strives to maintain, your basic level of happiness is set at a predetermined point. If something bad happens to you during the day, your happiness can drop momentarily, but then it returns to its natural set point. Likewise, if something positive happens to you, your level of happiness rises, and then it returns once again to your “happiness set-point.” A practice of gratitude raises your “happiness set-point” so you can remain at a higher level of happiness regardless of outside circumstances.
In addition, Dr. Emmons’ research shows that those who practice gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system, and have stronger social relationships than those who don’t practice gratitude. He further points out that “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings.”
All too often we take for granted the abundance of blessings in our life. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, Peace is Every Breath, talks about how at Plum Village, in France, their water was cut off periodically. During these times without water he gained a new appreciation for the water and the path it traveled to reach him and the others staying there. A friend of mine temporarily lost the ability to drive while she was recovering from surgery. She was so grateful to regain that ability once she had healed enough. People complain all the time about driving, but imagine what it would be like if you could no longer drive or if you could no longer even get in a car.
Imagine the little things you take for granted each day. Imagine not being able to go to the restroom without someone to help you. Imagine not being able to shower or bathe without assistance. Imagine not being able to breathe without assistance. Imagine not having a roof over your head. Imagine not having a job and no other source of income. Imagine not having a toilet inside your home. The list of things we take for granted on a daily basis is amazing.
Now imagine what your life would be like if after not having any of those items it was restored. My guess is that you would feel this sense of gratitude for this previously unrecognized blessing.
When I was in seminary, I read this book by Sabina Wurmbrand's called “The Pastor's Wife.” She told the story of what she and her husband Richard endured during his pastorate in Rumania. She wrote about how the Rumanians imprisoned her and her husband for believing in God and preaching his faith. Their young son had to be cared for by friends during the time they were imprisoned.
One day, as the women prisoners were marched along the road, from the factory where they performed forced labor, back to their bleak, comfortless dormitory, a friend of Sabina's surreptitiously plucked two raspberries growing beside the road, and carried them along in the palm of her hand. When they got back to the dormitory, she opened her hand, showed them to Sabina, and gave her one of them. They were so delighted with those two lonely, partially crushed little raspberries because they didn't have anything else.
I think of that sometimes when I feel like complaining. Two lonely, little raspberries. I have so much more in my life, then two lonely little raspberries.
Writing in a gratitude journal is just one way to develop and maintain a sense of gratitude in life. You can write letters to people who you are grateful for in your life or who have touched you in some way. A friend of mine has worked her way through the alphabet focusing each day on a different letter of the alphabet. In my gratitude journal, I have taken turns focusing on people, events, senses, and feelings.
Regardless of how you choose to develop a spiritual practice of gratitude, may we be grateful for all the Infinite is doing in our lives every day. May gratitude become like breathing for us. May it become something we don’t just do to heal and liberate ourselves when things are bad, but something we do in all circumstances. Take a minute and think about what you have to be grateful for and then do something to express your gratitude.