In the week leading up to Thanksgiving Day the newspapers and web sites have had many articles and posts on being thankful or being grateful. I’d like to share with you one written by Nancy Haught and published in the November 17th edition of The Oregonian:
Gratitude is as essential to Thanksgiving as turkey and pumpkin pie. Around simple or elaborately set tables Thursday, people will reflect — even briefly — on what they are grateful for. Even in a year when many have struggled to find work, pay bills and shelter their families.
But whether it takes the form of a prayer, a poem or personal reflections, gratitude can do more than elevate a holiday feast. Psychologists say it’s a personal trait that can be cultivated and may improve our lives all year long.
Thanksgiving, with its focus on a shared meal, connects gratitude to food, says Laura Engle, who leads seminars on food and faith at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in Milwaukee. A holiday dinner — whether it’s traditional, trendy, vegetarian or vegan — aims to be rich, beautiful and satisfying. “Food connects us to nature, creativity and a sense of home,” Engle says, and those connections evoke feelings of gratitude, whether or not one is religious or spiritual.
Evidence of the value of gratitude is mounting, thanks to the work of Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, who studies what ancient philosophers considered an essential human virtue. “Gratitude is a sustainable approach to life”, Emmons wrote. “It is choosing to focus on blessings rather than burdens, gifts rather than curses, and people report that it transforms their lives.”
In his work, Emmons asks people to keep gratitude journals, regularly recording what they’re grateful for receiving. He reports that those who do were more likely to make progress toward their personal goals. His research suggests that gratitude contributes to improved moods, heart rhythms and sleep patterns; fewer headaches and colds; increased work performance, alertness, determination and energy. It leads to empathy and compassion, what he calls “the awareness of the need to reciprocate.”
The challenge to gratitude, says Donald Altman, a psychotherapist in West Linn and a former Buddhist monk, is to move beyond appreciation of material things and the human tendency to take too much for granted. “We get amnesia,” he says. “We forget all that we have available to us daily — a roof over our heads, warmth, clothing to shelter us from the weather, the sunlight that nourishes not just us but plants and makes food available.” It’s also problematic to focus only on material things — a new car, a particular house, even a paycheck. Altman has worked with clients going through divorce, loss of a home, a job, even custody of their children.
“It’s easy to feel gratitude when things are going great,” he says. “But the real challenge is to feel gratitude for even the most difficult things in our lives. I work with people in difficult circumstances. When they’re able to find gratitude for even the hard things, they feel like a weight is lifted from their lives.”
One woman Altman counseled found that in a time of multiple losses, she recognized and became grateful for her personal strength, her ability to set aside temporarily her determination to be self-sufficient and to accept help from others. “When she lost material things in her life, she learned to appreciate the person that she was,” Altman says.
Gratitude is, after all, a point of perspective. Studies have found that people who concentrated on everyday hassles and obstacles were not as focused, optimistic or energetic as those who worked at being grateful, Altman says. “Gratitude is a way of finding joy and overcoming emptiness. Looking at what your life is missing is a very discouraging place to be.”
Altman, whose most recent book is titled “One Minute Mindfulness” (New World Library, 200 pages, $14.95), uses the acronym GLAD to help people sharpen their gratitude skills. At the end of every day, he asks them to write down one thing they’re grateful for, one thing they learned, one thing they accomplished and one thing that delighted them. “I see all these things linked to gratitude,” he says, “like facets on a diamond.” Then, he continues, read back through your lists — often.
“The human brain is not wired to spend a lot of time remembering good things, but it’s like Velcro for negativity,” he says. “Working on gratitude is a way of rewiring your brain, of paying attention to the good.” It takes time and practice, he says, but an occasion like Thanksgiving is “a teachable moment.”