Thanksgiving is on the horizon, a season when many of us set aside time to reflect on the beautiful things in our life, our many blessings. The cool thing is that gratitude doesn’t have to wait until November, it can be a daily practice, a way of life.
The words “gratitude” and “grace” share a common origin: the Latin word gratus, meaning “pleasing” or “thankful.” Many would agree that gratitude is a spiritual practice. Born out of faith, grace, love, and a thankful heart, gratitude is contentment—deep satisfaction.
An article in the AHP newsletter (Association for Humanistic Psychology) defined gratitude as “Orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.”
I won’t argue with that, but I’d like to add a qualifier. I believe that definition describes passive gratitude. If, however, that spark ignites a fire that inspires personal change, that passivity transforms into active gratitude.
It’s my perspective that gratitude in action—as a regular practice—has a wide brushstroke of positive effects:
- Inward—through appreciation we find contentment.
- Outward—it inspires generosity—be it our time, skills, or money—and gifts us with opportunities to serve.
- Environmentally—it’s a catalyst for healing our planet through the respect of nature.
For thousands of years gratitude has crossed religious and cultural boundaries not only as a social virtue, but as a theological virtue, but it’s a relatively new subject in the field of scientific research.
In an experiment conducted by Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, college students who kept a “gratitude journal”—a weekly record of things they felt thankful for—“achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, felt less lonely, exercised more regularly, and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals, but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.”
Studies have shown that people who feel and express gratitude to others and their concept of divinity—a higher power—tend to have a higher degree of optimism, increased vitality, reduced stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the general population.
When we experience sustained positive emotions like care, compassion, patience, and gratitude, our body produces dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) which is secreted by the adrenal glands. DHEA is known as the vitality hormone—it accelerates renewal and improves our health.
When we experience sustained negative emotions such as anger, bitterness, worry, or fear, our body produces cortisol which contributes to sub-optimal performance, accelerates aging, and is degenerative to health.
Similar to meditation, gratitude can be something we practice periodically throughout the day, or it can be a lifestyle—viewing life through the lens of sincere appreciation, of thank you. When we make gratitude a regular part of our daily experience, we set the stage for living more deeply. As self-help author Melody Beattie says, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.”
Gratitude isn’t only for a select few; for those who have everything going “right” in their lives. It’s for everyone. It’s for when we’re facing adversity; especially so. In fact, a loss can sometimes be a bridge to gratitude. Through the practice of gratitude, we can move forward, come what may, whether it’s in joy or sorrow, gain or loss, birth or death.
We don’t have to be passive, waiting for gratitude to find us. Instead, we can actively choose to cultivate and nurture it. When we feel grateful for things we might ordinarily take for granted—things like our body, the air we breathe, our home, the sky—it’s a good indicator that our spiritual health is in order. When we don’t feel grateful, it’s a clue that we’re “off, ” and it’s time to make a correction.
I wear a 27-bead wrist mala to bed each evening and quietly work my way around it naming people, places, things, and experiences that I’m grateful for as my fingers encounter each bead. This practice engages my heart as it quiets my mind for a peaceful night of sleep.
Friend and colleague, Dr. Michelle L. McClellan, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, is a proponent for journaling. She says, “Journaling is an age-old introspective technique that assists individuals in their personal growth. Writing is a time-honored process that enhances and speeds the process of change.”
The practice of gratitude isn’t a denial of life’s difficulties. One of the best ways to respond to a stressful situation is by acknowledging it as such, and then saying, “Yes, this is terrible, yet I’m grateful for…” By making gratitude a regular part of our daily experience, we set the stage for a healthier lifestyle and living more deeply connected to our higher self.
Gratitude is a key that unlocks the fullness of life, which is what authentic healing is all about.