Br. David Steindl Rast, a Benedictine monk did a TED talk on gratefulness last year. In it, he talked about the importance of being grateful at all times. “We all know people who have all that they should need to be happy, and yet they’re not. They’re always striving for more. They want something else, or more of the same. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune, and yet they radiate happiness. Why? Because they are grateful.”
Today in the US, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving – a holiday focused on gratitude. The holiday here traces back to 1620 when some of the earliest settlers in the American colonies set aside a day to thank God for the harvest. Most people think of this day as a day of feasting, which it certainly is. But it’s also a day when we should look back over the year and express gratitude for all the blessings in our lives.
So what is gratitude? It’s the sense of thankfulness – gratefulness – when we receive something of value that is freely given without expectation of recompense. It’s not earned; it’s not deserved; it doesn’t create a debt.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
Gratitude Makes Our Lives Better
Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been connected with many key factors of quality of life. Psychology researchers have positively linked gratitude to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, kinder behavior toward others (including family), and a higher long-term satisfaction with life. Grateful people fall asleep more quickly at night, sleep longer, and wake feeling more refreshed.
Other studies found close correlations between active gratitude and psychological well-being. Gratitude had correlations with a sense of autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.
Gratitude Makes Us More Generous
Rick Warren writes, “Radical gratitude — being thankful in all circumstances — is God’s will because it creates fellowship. What do I mean by that? Gratitude always builds deeper relationships between you and other people and between you and God.” When we’re feeling grateful, we feel generous. When we feel generous, we reach out to help our fellow man out of a sense of abundance.
“The way you think determines the way you feel, and the way you feel determines the way you act. ”
— Rick Warren
A 2003 study compared the impact when people kept a journal of daily burdens or daily blessings. In addition to experiencing greater levels of positive attitude, better sleep, and greater optimism; participants also had a greater sense of connectedness to others. Participants who daily listed things they were grateful for “were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another, suggesting pro-social motivation as a consequence of the gratitude induction.”
“Gratitude not only makes us happier, it also makes us nicer. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity and are willing to share.”
—Br. David Steindl Rast
Gratitude Makes Us Joyful
Joy and gratitude are also connected. Vulnerability expert Brene Brown spent 12 years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She found that “practicing gratitude brings joy into our lives.” The people she studied who were most joyful made a habit of actively being grateful on a regular, daily basis.
Practicing gratitude by expressing thanks, writing notes or keeping a gratitude journal brings a lasting sense of joy into our lives.
Gratitude Makes Us Less Materialistic
Another study on happiness found that “materialistic strivings have been implicated as a cause of unhappiness. Gratitude, on the other hand…may be a cause of happiness.” The study finds that gratitude has the potential to reduce materialistic striving and consequently improve psychological well-being.
“God doesn’t bless you so you can be greedy; he blesses you so you can be generous.”
— Rick Warren
Gratitude Helps Us Cope with Adversity
Finally, the study mentioned above found that gratitude improves our creative, cognitive and coping skills. “To the extent that gratitude, like other positive emotions, broadens the scope of cognition and enables flexible and creative thinking, it also facilitates coping with stress and adversity.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
— Viktor E. Frankl
We all experience adversity in our lives. But if we practice an attitude of gratitude, it will make it easier to face the challenges with equanimity and joy. Nick Vujicic is a perfect example of this. Born without arms or legs, he maintains an attitude of optimism that is infectious. In fact, he speaks all over the world, inspiring us all. Nick chooses gratitude daily: “Often people ask how I manage to be happy despite having no arms and no legs. The quick answer is that I have a choice. I can be angry about not having limbs, or I can be thankful that I have a purpose. I chose gratitude.”