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One may define gratitude as “the quality of being thankful.” Alternatively, we can think of it as an attitude, emotion, personal trait, or behavioral practice.
However it is conceived, the quality of being grateful is a foundational component of daily social exchange and can carry deep meaning both on interpersonal and intrapersonal levels.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when learning a new language, “thanks” is often one of the first words taught and acquired. Expressing thanks is seen as a universal sign of acknowledgment, respect, and humility, and it transcends culture and time. The very act conveys a caring for the other person in a connected relationship. When transacted genuinely, it solidifies meaning that something of value and worth has transpired. The act and reverberations leave both the person offering the gratitude and the person receiving it feeling better in general, as well as better about self and others. This concept of gratitude is a main tenet of the Catholic faith and even forms the elemental basis of saying grace before a meal.
It is also an integral purpose of Mass and prayer in general. Indeed, “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Priests and religious are steeped in the importance of gratitude and thankfulness, not only in personal and vocational formation but also in daily practice.
The concept of gratitude also holds a preeminent place within the twelve-step principles and groups. It is not an uncommon occurrence for someone in an AA meeting to introduce him or herself as a “grateful alcoholic.”
This simple yet powerful moniker implies two related reckonings of thankfulness. First, that the individual accepts the struggles with alcohol she has encountered along the way as a part of her whole human cloth. Second, that she is happy with life as it is now, in the current moment.
Practicing gratitude can be an integral part of knowing and maintaining real contentment. During tough times when we find life a struggle, being grateful for one’s whole circumstance and making a ritual out of gratitude may seem especially counterintuitive, yet it can provide an effective vehicle through those emotional or behavioral difficulties.
Despite this cognitive understanding regarding the conceptual importance of gratitude, practical offerings of gratitude can sometimes become more rote or a less genuinely felt part of our daily, lived experiences. When this happens we can accidentally diminish a crucial source of spiritual connection and personal happiness.
Psychological research supports what we already know on a personal, institutional, and even national (Thanksgiving Day) level: Giving thanks is a vital way to connect to something larger than ourselves and enhances feelings of optimism and well-being in general. Stated differently, our mental health can actively be improved through purposeful practices of gratitude.
Positive psychology approaches scientific theory and inquiry from the perspective of how best to help individuals experience greater fulfillment in life. Various studies have indicated correlations between intentionally practicing thankfulness and an increased sense of personal happiness, decreased anxiety and depression, more restful sleep, and beneficial changes in brain chemistry.
In “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens,” by Emmons and McCullough (2003), the researchers conducted three studies on whether practicing gratitude had an impact on well-being.
Researchers randomly assigned participants to groups that were asked to either focus on gratitude or on neutral or distressing events. For all three studies, the gratitude-outlook groups were reported to exhibit heightened well-being across a significant number of outcome measures relative to comparison groups, with “positive affect” or happiness appearing to be the most robust effect. Researchers concluded such results suggest both emotional and interpersonal benefits accruing from a “conscious focus on blessings.”
Similar studies have employed journaling, prayer, meditation, or social connection (i.e., communicating one’s gratitude directly to family or friends) as the means of tapping into this all too often overlooked or perhaps taken for granted—power we can all manifest.
As extreme political strife and global uncertainty only add to an already stressful existence, it may be a particularly good time for a self-care challenge. Find a simple but effective-for-you way(s) of being, saying, and noticing what and for whom you are thankful. Be creative, but don’t forget to practice. Just like physical muscles, our gratitude muscles can atrophy when not stretched.
Perhaps just as importantly, remember also to notice and appreciate your own gifts. Realistic, positive self-appraisal helps bolster self-esteem, which in turn makes it that much easier to appreciate others. And, if all else fails, remember the gratitude you undoubtedly felt and shared with the world a few months ago when 13 trapped souls were rescued from a cave in Thailand.
After all, we can often say gratitude is primarily about taking perspective.
Steven Alexander, Ph.D., is a therapist with the Halfway House program at Saint Luke Institute.
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