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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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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.

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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."

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