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Gratitude: a healthy recipe for Thanksgiving

Gratitude is an ethic that experts now see as equally secular and religious – not to mention a healthy recipe for Thanksgiving all year round.

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    Gratitude is an ethic that experts now see as equally secular and religious – not to mention a healthy recipe for Thanksgiving all year round. This is the cover story project of the Nov. 21 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.
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On their first morning in this world of crayons and cubbyholes, the newbies at Narberth Presbyterian Church Nursery School find thankfulness at every turn.

"Yes, Abby's arm is hurt, but she got to choose the color of her cast. Isn't that neat?" observes longtime teacher Rosemarie Snarski. "No, I didn't make the juice. Mrs. Addy bought it for us at the store. Wasn't that so nice of her?" "No, Mommy's not here just yet, but guess what? We get to go to the gym now!"

And before the graham crackers and goldfish crackers, the teacher introduces gratitude, that staple of childhood far and wide: "God is great. God is good. And we thank Him for our food. Amen."

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While the students here may be pint-sized, the ideas in play are huge. You may already know that gratitude ennobles a person, warms the hearts of people in his or her orbit, and generally improves life. If experts – secular and religious alike – are to be believed, gratitude may well be the holy grail of personal and societal well-being. If you're grateful, studies show, you are prone to be happier, less aggressive, and less depressed; to be more helpful, more satisfied with life, and have better friendships; to be more generous, less envious, and less concerned with prestige. You're even likely to have a higher grade-point average. What's more, you tend to be healthier physically and mentally. And practicing, as you do, a key component of strong moral character, and a virtue central to the world's great secular as well as religious belief systems, you can stand tall.

Leslie Matula, whose Project Wisdom has provided character-education plans to some 18,000 public and private schools nationwide since 1992, says the grateful heart boosts energy and determination, helping students avoid getting bogged down when they encounter challenges.

"Gratitude is all about attitude. And attitude is a choice," says Ms. Matula. "Gratitude is important because once you learn to look through that lens of life, everything shifts. You no longer find yourself focusing on what's wrong with your life but what's good about your life."

Never mind what you're thankful for. It's your grateful heart that's good for you. And it's good for the rest of us, too, suggests Jeffrey J. Froh, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., who has studied gratitude extensively. "People really, really like grateful people," he says.

But like other virtues, this one is under threat, as a culturewide move toward materialism, self-reliance, and entitlement clouds the give-and-take essential for gratitude, experts say.

"There sometimes seems to be a spirit of complaint in the air," observes Patricia Campbell Carlson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living. As if in response, a cornucopia of thankfulness has spilled forth – via tweets, blogs, websites, and Facebook, through programs in the classroom and studies in the lab, through retreats and exercises, books and journals, workshops and symposiums, some New Age and others old-school. In spite of – or perhaps even because of – the cultural forces against it, says Ms. Carlson, "gratitude is also thriving."

But no one needs an app to recognize a thankful heart.

Case in point: Professor Froh tells of an 11-year-old boy from a poor neighborhood who got up at 5 every morning to be bused into the wealthier school district where Froh worked.

The boy had no winter coat. A teacher found what Froh describes as an "old-man sport jacket" for the boy to wear, a coat that a poor kid in a status-conscious setting might see as worse than nothing. This kid, on the other hand, bubbling over with enthusiasm, saw Froh in the hall and ran to him.

"He was grinning ear to ear. He couldn't wait to show me he had it," recalls the psychologist. "I still get goose bumps when I think of it."

Gratitude leads to success

Of course, everyone's old-man sport jacket is different.

Concerned about the emotional state of her candidate pool as the recession plundered the financial sector in 2009, Janice Abert, a New York City executive recruiter who specializes in the financial industry, organized a peer networking group to help the job hunters keep their skills honed and spirits up. The group became a sort of port in the storm for many, including Brooke Furst, an unemployed Wall Street sales executive and father of four, who has been in and out of work twice since 2009, as two separate companies he worked for closed down. Through it all, Mr. Furst has been thankful for the simplest acts of kindness: the colleagues who shared their contacts with him, who made introductions, who offered encouragement; and especially for those who returned his phone calls despite knowing well that Furst was without work, and therefore – on the surface, at least – without anything to offer them except need.

For his part, Furst perpetuates what experts describe as the cyclical nature of the process of thanksgiving by consciously doing the same kinds of things for others. "Being grateful tends to activate an altruistic state of mind," says Christian Miller, professor and leader of the Templeton Foundation-funded Character Project at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Furst's grateful attitude, recruiter Ms. Abert says, is also characteristic of job seekers who are attractive to prospective employers: "You always knew he appreciated what you did, and so people bent over backward to help him."

And Furst is aware that money troubles are often the least of life's worries. Job or no job, he says, "I wake up every morning and I thank my Lord," especially for his healthy family. He has seen Wall Street titans – "the proverbial Masters of the Universe, decamillionaires" – whose children have been gravely ill, who would gladly trade problems with someone like Furst. "They'd give every dollar in their bank account" to have their children be well, he says.

Abert says that grateful job seekers have an advantage: "You want to hire people like [Furst] who are going to create a culture that's gracious to work in."

Plenty of others are also focusing their gratitude on family. Loving relationships, with people and with the divine, are often the most cited reasons people feel grateful, says Carlson, of A Network for Grateful Living. But, she observes, "gratitude is not at all dependent on a creator." Many who define themselves as atheistic or agnostic direct their gratitude elsewhere – toward other people, for instance, or to the sun for providing warmth or the earth for providing food, she explains.

Joyce Bender, chief executive officer of Bender Consulting Services, which she began in 1995 to help people with disabilities find jobs, says in fact that gratitude is "the No. 1 thing" her prospective employers look for in hiring. And she knows why: "I believe gratitude gives you strength."

After nearly losing her life in an accident back in 1985, Ms. Bender developed an abiding gratitude "for the chance to continue living. I thanked God I survived. And where does that gratitude lead? To giving back."

Her physician challenged her to resist the temptation to "live as an invalid," and she went on first to volunteer with disabled people and then to open a small placement agency. The firm has since grown, and Bender has been awarded and cited for her work, locally as well as nationally, from White Houses both Republican and Democratic.

"The more gratitude you have, the more successful your life becomes," she says.

Medical science recognizes gratitude

Indeed, the grateful may be their own best friends.

Gregory Fricchione, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says gratitude is a key component of resilience, a person's ability to withstand stress – to swing with inclement weather, as a bridge does, and "give yet not break." Without resilience, he says, the 50-year-old, with three kids in college, who gets a pink slip "would be a basket case before noon."

The stress of rejection – being fired, for instance – is especially painful and may have a longer recovery time than other kinds of stress, he says. And while making a list of blessings wouldn't be the medical cure for major depression, and while it's difficult to feel grateful during the initial "shock wave" of the pain, a cycle of healing may start with something simple: "When you wake up, it's helpful if you have something you look forward to," suggests Dr. Fricchione.

Medical scientists, too, believe they are able to trace the beneficial effects of gratitude in humans. Thankfulness may work in the same manner spiritual and religious ideas do, speculates Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in Philadelphia. While scientists have yet to conduct specific brain studies on the physiological effects of thankfulness, they have found that intense focus on positive things, such as the favor of a friend, causes the positive thinking – or positive neural pathways, as medical science terms it – to engage. You not only appreciate the favor and the friend, but you strengthen the process itself, making it easier to see experiences in a positive way in the future, says Dr. Newberg.

Conversely, if you dwell on the negative – say the friend's forgetting of your birthday – the opposite happens: Stress can be triggered, and it becomes easier to process things negatively in the future. Thus, suggests Newberg, "even though it might feel forced, if you focus on gratitude over time, it does change the way your brain works."

Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis, professor of psychology whose research and writing on the topic have made him something of a gratitude guru, says that people motivated to change their levels of happiness, or to lift a mild depression, can do so through a gratitude "intervention." This might entail keeping a gratitude journal, for instance, or spending 15 minutes a week remembering past kindnesses and, in response, writing a letter of thanks to a person who did the kindness. "The ones who gain the greatest benefits [are those who] try hard to carry it out over time," Professor Emmons wrote in an e-mail interview with the Monitor.

Spontaneous thanksgiving

Gratitude and religion go hand in hand, as evidenced by the many ways believers express their thanks, says Leonard Swidler, editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and religion professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. He calls thankfulness "a spontaneous response of anyone with any sense at all that our existence as human beings is not pure accident. Thanksgiving is just a very central way of relating between believers and their ultimate reality – God."

Adherents burn incense at Buddhist shrines. Hindus offer their deities food. The prescribed daily prayer in Islam and Orthodox Judaism overflows with gratitude, which is also a central component of Christian prayer. There is grace said before meals. There are hymns. There are Scriptures. There are psalms. And of course, there is the spontaneous prayer of one who received something wished for or was spared something feared. ("What's the first thing you say then?" asks Professor Swidler: "Thank God!")

Though thankfulness doesn't have to be a religious experience, it can be intensely so, observes Newberg, whose fledgling field of neurotheology studies spiritual experience and the brain. When people who are asked to focus on specific ideas during laboratory studies choose to focus on things that have strong meaning to them personally, the neurological effects are measurable, he explains. "So when people feel gratitude in context with God, it combines gratitude with an extremely strong sense of love, compassion, and belief, and I would think you have a more robust response."

Swimming in a sea of cyberthanks

Online, you might be overwhelmed by the bounty of gratefulness expressed by everyone from moms to monks to megastars. There's the übergrateful Oprah and her Oprah.com, as overflowing with thankful enthusiasm as she is. There are the more ascetic, but no less bountiful, folks at A Network for Gratitude's gratefulness.org, a source for everything from everyday inspiration to research data, history, workshops, and off-line local communities. There's the down-home Sarah Ban Breathnach's simpleabundance.com and her straightforward tips for journaling and reflecting. And all around them are online testimonials and affirmations, programs and exercises, curatives and sales pitches legit as well as questionable.

Off-line or on, gratitude comes in degrees and varies with personality. It can be a fleeting feeling or emotion: You're grateful it didn't rain on your day off, for instance. Or, it can be a set of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are reliable and stable over time.

"Some people are more prone by nature to be grateful." says Harvard's Fricchione. "You can drop a ton of bricks on them and they keep going."

For the grateful, almost anything can be the object of gratitude, and virtually any situation bears some thankful possibility.

Even in the worst of times, "if you're thankful for someone, for something, even a phone call, you have reached out beyond yourself," says Edward Creagan, an oncologist and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Once the focus is off the self, there's great serenity."

Gratitude can interrupt what Dr. Creagan terms "the malignant narcissism of the terminally ill." He observes evidence of that when he asks his patients about a near-universal source of gratitude – the family dog.

"No one can think about their pet without smiling," he says. This shift in focus helps battle pessimism, something Mayo studies associate with a shorter life span and decreased quality of life. "You cannot be optimistic if you're not grateful," he says.

The gratitude equation includes taking

Gratitude, by definition, entails appreciation of generosity, whether you believe that it came from another person, from God, even from happenstance. It means you have to take, which is not easy if you've always prided yourself on self-sufficiency. But for those who have been in need, receiving does tend to beget giving, as a collection of recession-scarred executives, some still out of work, have learned from a church-based ministry.

After Lehman Brothers fell in 2008, the Stanwich (Conn.) Congregational Church's Vocational Next Steps ministry became a refuge for Wall Street executives, who were being laid off by the tens of thousands. The layoffs were often harsh – sometimes by e-mail, sometimes as an employee left for vacation – according to Ernst Schirmer, a financial industry consultant who founded the Stanwich program.

As the economy got worse the group grew to 1,000 members, in churches throughout the counties of Westchester, N.Y., and Fairfield, Conn., and one on the West Coast. Those who originally came for help getting a job began to meet diverse, and often intensely personal, needs for each other: sharing of contacts; vocational discernment; counsel on finances, emotions, family, and health; as well as Bible study; and the more routine résumé-writing and interviewing tips.

The gratitude of those who were in need and received help was put to direct use for others in similar need of work, perpetuating the thankfulness/altruism cycle.

It has become a "safe place," says Mr. Schirmer of his group, a place sustained by Twitter, LinkedIn, and e-mail, as the help continues to pass to and through an ever-wider network of people out of work. "They experienced help and that equips them to help others," he says.

The biggest gift? Encouragement, says Schirmer: "Everybody realizes that God does have a plan for everyone. If you do listen, God will send you some helpful servants – some sounding boards, the realization that somebody does care and is willing to be alongside you."

Many scientists consider gratitude a helpful survival strategy during difficult times, says Randy A. Sansone, a professor at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio. But this may not always have been the case. Negative thinking, and its focus on recognizing and defeating threats to physical survival, may have been the more adaptive approach until recent times, he explained in an e-mail interview.

These days, personal development, temperament, life trauma, and a culture of entitlement affect how thankful a person is. And personal morality dictates how those thanks are used. After all, an insincere shower of thanks – when not totally transparent and boring – can exploit somebody who's a soft touch and can manipulate the generous for personal gain.

To qualify as virtue, thankfulness needs to meet a high standard.

"It's not just about doing the right thing, but doing it for the right reason," says Professor Miller, at the Character Project. "If you make lots of donations to charity so you get your name in the paper, that's not it." If you do lots of virtuous acts, but your heart is self-centered, then you don't have the virtue, he says. Even learning about the benefits of gratitude so you can reap those benefits doesn't count either, he adds. "The key is not only to be grateful, but to do it out of genuine thanksgiving."

Schools often present a gratitude how-to. In Washington, D.C., the nonprofit advocacy group Character Education Partnership frequently helps school districts that are experiencing problems – an atmosphere of entitlement, for example, or hazing or other bad behavior. The partnership builds thankfulness into its schoolwide interventions from the earliest years. Little kids might talk in circle time about all that they have. In studying a poorer country, high-schoolers may reflect on the contrast between those nations and their own.

Joe Mazzola, president and CEO of the partnership, says helping others, something as simple as raising money for backpacks for students at a poorer, neighboring school, makes for grateful givers as well as recipients, as his charges realize how very fortunate they are in comparison.

At Project Wisdom, Matula's passion for gratitude also has her students practicing it in a range of exercises. They may be thanking soldiers on Armed Forces Day, using gratitude as an antidote to feeling whiny, or adopting it as a conscious stance in the face of stress.

Learning to recognize kindness

But no one beats good old Mom and Dad for lessons in thankfulness, experts say.

"The easiest way for me to explain gratitude to [tots] is through their parents – to show them that their parents supply them with everything they need," explains nursery school teacher Ms. Snarski.

Parents can seize the moment when somebody does a kindness for their child, says psychologist Froh. Ask the child what happened, he suggests: What did the giver intend? What might it have cost that person in money, say, or in time or emotion – to do the kindness? What benefit did the child receive as a result?

The goal of such an exercise? Awareness, Froh says, "that I have these good things in my life and part of the source lies outside of me."

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