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Practicing gratitude has spiritual, emotional benefits Mary Jacobs, Nov 16, 2009
PHOTO COURTESY OF LAYNE SMITH
Friends of Steve Damm recently celebrated his “first birthday in heaven” with a balloon release. His widow, Tyra, says that gratitude helped the couple weather his last 20 months of life.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
For Steve and Tyra Damm, a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer brought an unlikely gift: gratitude.
From the day he learned he had a brain tumor, at the beginning of 2008, until his death in September, Steve Damm woke up every morning and gave thanks to God for another day.
“We learned that every day is truly a gift,” said Ms. Damm, a member of Holy Covenant UMC in Carrollton, Texas. “We talked about that many times. I don’t think Steve would have lived as long as he did if we hadn’t recognized all the blessings we had.” Her husband outlived medical predictions, living 20 months instead of the four to six months typical for someone with his type of brain tumor.
On Nov. 26, Americans will celebrate a day set aside for giving thanks. But many say they’ve received year-round blessings by heeding the biblical injunction to give thanks always, in everything (Ephesians 5:20), even in the face of life’s most difficult challenges.
“Gratitude is a way to approach life,” said the Rev. Brian Hardesty-Crouch, a United Methodist minister and president of HolyMoments.org, an extension ministry focused on spirituality. “It’s looking for the good and thanking God for that.”
Deborah Norville, host of the television program Inside Edition, suspected gratitude’s hidden benefits from her experiences as a reporter, interviewing survivors of tragedy.
“I’ve been astounded that so many people, despite terrific suffering, feel grateful,” said Ms. Norville, who grew up attending First UMC in Dalton, Ga. “I wondered if the practice of gratitude was somehow linked to one’s ability to find inner strength and happiness.”
That hunch led Ms. Norville to dig into research journals and ultimately to write a book, Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work for You (Thomas Nelson, 2007). She discovered that an “attitude of gratitude” actually alters brain chemistry and reduces physical signs of stress.
Why is gratitude so powerful? It keeps a person focused on blessings rather than problems and puts minor annoyances in perspective. Thanking God or another person can lift people out of their own unhappy, self-absorbed morass.
“It’s not always easy to find the silver lining in a bad situation, but when you do, it completely changes the lens through which you view it,” said Ms. Norville.
Elaine Morris, a Christian leadership coach in Dallas, learned that lesson in 2001, while undergoing a difficult divorce and struggling financially. Ms. Morris kept a journal and found ways to give thanks in her written prayers. Re-reading the journals recently, she realized that gratitude helped her survive that year.
“I always thought God asked us to be grateful because we ‘should’ thank Him,” said Ms. Morris. “But God does it for us. By being thankful, we can keep going. It gives us strength and hope for the future, to know that whatever troubles you face are not going to go on forever.”
Like Ms. Norville, Barbara Brown Taylor, author of An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, 2009) says she’s been amazed by friends who’ve responded to a series of losses or painful experiences with gratitude.
“Most of them tell me that it is one of the few choices they have left to them: to decide how they will respond to what has happened to them,” she said. “The minute they find something to be grateful for, they cease being victims of their circumstances and become people able to give thanks.”
“Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people's lives,” says Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (2007). His research showed that grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.
That scientific evidence may help explain why virtually every world religion offers some teaching on the virtue of gratitude. But the Rev. Tom Albin, team leader for Upper Room Program Ministries, believes gratitude has a special place in the Methodist heart.
“Gratitude is the appropriate spiritual response to grace,” he said. “If we lack gratitude and benevolence to our neighbors, John Wesley would say that we have not truly been converted and there is more that God needs to do in our hearts.”
Mr. Albin cited John Wesley’s sermon, “The Unity of the Divine Being,” in which the founder of Methodism observed that “True religion is, in two words, gratitude and benevolence; gratitude to our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow creatures.”
A spirit of gratitude, however, doesn’t always come naturally.
“Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding,” Mr. Emmons said.
One way to cultivate gratitude, Mr. Albin said, is to serve others. Gratitude is often an unexpected side effect of mission work.
“It’s a typical pattern,” he said. “A youth group of middle-class kids goes to work in a place of significant need, and they come back more grateful for privileges that, before, they had taken for granted.”
Mr. Hardesty-Crouch reflected on the grateful spirit of people he’s met on mission trips to Mexico and Africa.
“I’ve encountered folks who have an amazing gratitude for God that seems not to be linked to their material possessions,” he said. “That’s a real challenge to me and to many who live with plenty.”
Other ways to cultivate gratitude: Keep a gratitude journal, regularly writing down those things for which you are grateful. Incorporate a word of thanks in daily prayers or quiet time. Use visual cues or daily occurrences—such as a stop at traffic light or a wait in the grocery line—as reminders to reflect with gratitude.
For Ms. Taylor, aches, pains and wrinkles serve as her unlikely triggers for moments of gratitude.
“The older I get, the more opportunities I have to give thanks in the face of physical diminishment,” said Ms. Taylor. “When my knees hurt, I thank God for the opportunity to slow down. When I see wrinkles in the mirror, I thank God for all the laughs, scowls, frowns and kisses that have put them there.”
“Even in the midst of things that might be hard,” Mr. Hardesty-Crouch said, “if I can find something to be grateful for, that puts me in touch with God’s peace.”
· Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008). · People who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic, compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). · Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects who did not keep the lists. · A daily “gratitude intervention” with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy.
Source: Highlights from the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness, by co-investigators Robert A. Emmons (University of California, Davis) and Michael E. McCullough (University of Miami).