With Thanksgiving approaching, many Americans struggling with health, financial, and emotional problems find it challenging to feel grateful. Some people have a habit of looking at the negative. That can be because our brains are predisposed to solve problems, and we take what makes us comfortable for granted.
Gratitude & Religion
All world religions stress the importance of gratitude. In Judaism, prayers of gratefulness are an essential component of worship: Orthodox Jews recite them one hundred times a day. Gratitude was referred to by Martin Luther as a “basic Christian attitude.” The Koran states that the grateful will be given more. Muslim believers are encouraged to give thanks five times a day. Sufi, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions also emphasize giving thanks.
Moreover, religious traditions suggest that you should be grateful notwithstanding your current problems and circumstances – not to deny them, but in addition to and in spite of them. To feel gratitude only when you feel good is considered narrow-minded. In the Bible, Paul teaches, “In everything give thanks.” The Hebrew Midrash instructs, “In pleasure or pain, give thanks!” Islamic tradition says that those who give thanks in every circumstance will be the first to enter paradise.
The purpose of prayer is to open people to the presence of God. When it’s heartfelt, it is life-altering. Prayers of gratitude affirm God’s presence in everything and make our actions infinitely more effective.
Why Be Grateful?
Meister Eckhart, a well-known mystic, believed that thanking God was the most important prayer. Prophets and monks know that gratitude brings you closer to God. Even if you’re not religious, gratitude enables you to see your life in a larger context beyond your immediate troubles. It expands your life experience. It counteracts an ego-centered contraction and preoccupation with losses, fears, and wants. Being grateful only when good things happen reinforces your ego’s demand that good things happen, setting up greater disappointment when things don’t turn out as you desire. This, according to Buddha, is the cause of suffering.
The sages also knew that gratitude actually shifts your perspective from feeling depression, envy, anger, or self-pity to happiness. It can open your heart to joy and generosity, because you begin to feel that you’re blessed. Moreover, how you view your circumstances determines your ability to manage and overcome them. Often it’s worry or anxiety about the future that colors how you see a situation. Negative emotions limit your imagination and ability to cope and solve problems. Hence, your state of mind ultimately is more important than your outer experience.
Cultivating an attitude of acceptance enables you to feel grateful even when you’re in pain. It’s helpful to view all experience is an opportunity to grow and learn. Helen Keller wrote, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.” Rather than seeing yourself as a victim of circumstance, accepting reality and developing gratitude for what you do have vs. focusing on what you don’t empowers you to take appropriate action.
Gratitude has only been subjected to empirical research since the advent of the positive psychology movement. What religion has known for millennia, science has confirmed. Numerous studies suggest that grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and sense of well-being and lower levels of stress and depression. This naturally translates into better physical health.
Developing an Attitude of Gratitude
Gratefulness comes more easily to some than others. When you’re discouraged or weighed down with negative thoughts, there are several things you can do to develop an “attitude of gratitude:”
- There’s wisdom in the phrase “count your blessings.” Listing the things for which you’re grateful can generate feelings of appreciation and gratitude. It’s often suggested to write them down daily. You can start with the fact that you have a brain, can write, and can read. Add small things, for example, seeing a child smile, receiving affection from a pet or greetings from a co-worker, or accomplishing a task, such as doing laundry or taking a walk. After several days, you’ll begin to look for things to add to your list and find that your mood significantly improves – faster than taking an anti-depressant.
- Read your list to someone. Sharing your grateful feelings doubles the effect. Arrange to regularly share your gratitude lists and give thanks together. Praying together heightens your sense of connection and well-being.
- Express thanks daily. Doing so out loud has more power. In the morning and evening, and before meals, recite prayers of gratitude, or just say thank you to your higher power.
- Thank others. Throughout the day, thank others for their help — particularly people you don’t ordinarily thank, such as cashiers. This is a recognition that you depend upon many people in order to survive and acknowledges your interdependent existence. The same is implicit in saying grace for the labor that goes into food on your table.
- Compliment people. Giving compliments shows appreciation and lifts others’ mood as well as yours.
- Write notes. Put them on your refrigerator, mirrors, and computer to remind you to be thankful.
- Think about people you appreciate. The act of visualizing them with positive feelings opens your heart to gratitude.
- Write people unexpected thank-you notes. Writing your appreciation prompts loving feelings that engender gratitude.
- Do small acts of generosity. Give someone your place in line, help someone pay for a purchase, or bring food to a neighbor.
- Thank yourself at the end of the day for things you did well. List at least three things. They may be small and include the above acts of gratitude.
In time, you’ll notice a change in your mood until your “cup runneth over” – or, at least appear half full rather than half empty.