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

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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."

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