Opening Up / Saving your life with gratitude
Published 6:51 am, Thursday, December 15, 2011
An article in The New York Times last month by John Tierney, "A Serving Of Gratitude May Save the Day," instantly became a most-emailed item, and I can see why. Tierney cites a number of impressive studies as to how gratitude as a practice -- I would call it a spiritual practice -- generates better sleep, helps to reduce anxiety and depression and promotes kinder behavior.
Based on the findings of experiments conducted by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, Tierney suggests beginning with "gratitude lite," that is, keeping a journal listing five things for which we feel grateful each week. A good idea, but even better if you do it every day.
At a time in my life when I was coming out of a second marriage, my heart broken and despair clinging to me like wet clothes, each night in my strange, new, isolated town, my place of escape, I wrote in my journal anything nice that had happened to me that day. The sentences were simple: "The man at the drugstore smiled at me." "The sun sparkled on the bay." "I made a real dinner tonight for myself." Such ordinary things, things that nowadays might easily escape my awareness.
Why does gratitude-writing over time lift the spirit? How is it that digging for and finding miniscule nuggets of pleasure can help to heal a fractured soul? The process of writing them down reinforces our awareness: of the man smiling; of the sun sparkling. We get to relive those fleeting pleasures, and, for those few moments, we are pulled up and out of our sticky selves, out of the mire of depression that can surround us like a dark blanket of fog. Not only that, but the more we are aware of our gratefulness, quite astonishingly, the more frequently opportunities for gratefulness will arise.
This is not an exercise just for those who are depressed; this is for all of us, all the time, every day of our lives. Don't we all want to be happier and more optimistic? Then some form of gratitude practice, any form that suits you, is the way.
I start my day with gratitude for the day itself and for all the miracles of the day to come. Do miracles happen every day in my life? Yes, but not in the biblical sense like the parting of the waters. Still, I have to say that occasionally those waters do part, at least metaphorically. You know, those times when everything that seems stuck in a hopeless jumble suddenly slips into place with little or no effort on your part? There's a "parting of the waters" just for you.
Tiny and not so tiny miracles do happen every day in all of our lives. Absolutely. Hey! What about when, after dragging my reluctant body for the annual gastroenterology inspection, my very conscientious gastroenterologist says to me, "I don't think you need to have any more colonoscopies." Is that a miracle or what? My feet barely touched ground as I left her office.
Miracles, large and small are constantly there; we just have to notice them. We need to bring the bar way low so that we don't miss even the tiniest one. On this subject, a spiritual teacher of mine used to say, "Think of it as a savings account. You are banking gratitude, banking joy. There is so much in life that is not joyous so you need to have a strong and plentiful savings."
Tierney's article goes on to tell us that a study at the University of Kentucky revealed that gratitude practitioners are less bothered by criticism, less likely to feel the need to counter attack when criticized.
"Says Nathan De Wall, who led the study at the University of Kentucky, `It [gratitude] helps people become less aggressive by enhancing their empathy.'"
The more actively grateful we are, the more empathic and kinder we are towards others. Everybody wins.
We can expand our gratitude practice from the personal level to the national, gratefully acknowledging that, severe economic and political troubles notwithstanding, we live in a predominantly peaceful society where our children can be clothed and educated, where we can purchase food: a country wherein our doors will not be inexplicably shattered in the night by police who will drag us away.
The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, Peace Is every Step, expands the practice of gratitude for specific blessings to the practice of gratitude for life itself.
"Breathing in, I calm my body,
"Breathing out, I smile.
"Dwelling in the present moment
"I know this is a wonderful moment."
Be grateful, Hanh tells us. "You are alive!"
Cecily Stoddard Stranahan is a retired psychotherapist and an interfaith minister. Her "Opening Up" appears monthly, and she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.