Experts prescribe an attitude of gratitude to lighten life's load

December 15, 2011

Even after all this time, 
the sun never says to the earth, "You owe me." 
Look what happens with a love like that. 
It lights the whole  sky. 

Director of mission and pastoral care
Youville Place and Youville House Assisted Living Residences
Lexington and Cambridge, Mass.

In the mid-1980s, my wife, two young daughters and I lived in a poor urban neighborhood on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. While running water and electricity were erratic, trash pickup took place every day, save Sunday. As was customary each day for all of us in the neighborhood, one spring morning I placed our small container of garbage on the sidewalk outside the front door. Just as I was turning to go back inside, I saw an elderly indigenous woman approaching with a scruffy, malnourished dog a step or two behind her. She was dressed traditionally in many layers of skirts, a colorful, if threadbare, top and brown bowler hat. Before I could say good morning, she nodded at me and reached for the garbage pail and began to search through it.

I froze for a second, trying to find the right words: "Señora, please stop! We have food inside. Do you need money?"

I was quite sure she was Quechua speaking, but Spanish was the best I could do. Before a single word made its way to my lips, she slipped part of a chicken carcass — skin, gristle and a tiny bit of meat still attached — into the plastic bag tied to her belt. I still had no words.

She looked up at me with sad eyes and a small smile and said quietly, "Le agradezco, Señor." ("Thank you, sir.") She moved on to the next household and I never saw her again. But, to this day, I am struck and humbled by how her sincere expression of gratitude filled that spring morning.

By all appearances, she had almost nothing to her name and her life was a struggle. Why would she thank me who had given her nothing? How did she find it in herself to express thanks for bone and gristle?

Since then, I've come to the conclusion that gratitude is not a function of either abundance or scarcity. Rather, it is an approach to living. People from different cultures and across all economic classes can and do express genuine gratitude. Individuals with a natural disposition toward gratefulness seem happier and more content than people who seldom express, or feel, grateful. The grateful bring light into the world.

While some people seem to have a natural aptitude for gratitude, I believe it can be cultivated too. Individuals can make a conscious effort to see what is right and good about a situation, and they can practice gratitude until gratefulness becomes a reflexive part of who they are.

Gratitude restores a sense of wonder, and it has other great benefits, too. Studies have shown that gratitude impacts an individual's physical and emotional health. In "Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude," a WebMD article on the health effects of gratitude, health reporter Elizabeth Heubeck cites research that makes a case for giving thanks liberally. She quoted Robert Emmons, a gratitude expert and professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who said his gratitude research suggested "that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress." Emmons told WebMD that grateful people take better physical care of themselves, they are apt to exercise and eat right.

Emmons' work is a part of the emerging positive psychology movement, but a recognition of and appreciation for the power of gratitude is nothing new. Philosophers and religious leaders across many cultural and denominational traditions have acclaimed the individual and collective benefits of gratitude for centuries. Over 700 hundred years ago as Sufi mystic Hafiz of Persia was writing poems about gratitude and happiness like the one above, the Dominican Friar and mystic, Meister Eckhart, also reflected with elegance on the subject. "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice," Eckhart wrote.

Contemporary self-help author Melody Beattie sees grace in gratitude: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life," she wrote. "It turns what we have into enough, and more."

Albert Einstein said that, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

What are you grateful for today?


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.