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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."