The dictionary defines gratitude as "the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful." As a society, most of us tend not to think a whole lot about this word except for a short time toward the end of November, and even then, we associate it with planned gluttony rather than the larger meaning.
I've been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. It's a part of an annual cycle. I have an important anniversary coming up at the end of July, and it always sets me to thinking about gratitude. In fact, for almost four years I have made lists nearly every day which reflect my gratitude for different blessings in my life. I first learned about gratitude journaling from Sarah Ban Breathnach in one of my favorite daily meditation books, Simple Abundance (A Daybook of Comfort and Joy) back in 1995. In that most treasured volume, on January 14, Ms. Ban Breathnach introduces the concept of the gratitude journal by using one of my favorite quotes from Melodie Beattie ~
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow."
In 1995, I was a single mother, working to raise two elementary-school-age children. I was fortunate enough to be working, but money was always tight and I was always tired. The idea of simple abundance appealed to me. I was so exhausted by the rat race and the concept of trying to keep up with my friends and neighbors. I embraced then the idea that I could create the reality I wanted to enjoy, with the help of my beloved day book, the guidance of family and friends, and whatever other wisdom I could find in the great spiritual literature of the day.
It went well for a time. The children and I enjoyed simpler amusements. We made our fun for the most part. We had a garden and put up food. We made jam. I found recipes for homemade bubbles and playdough and we made them up. We baked cookies, had picnics and swim days at local parks, camped in the back yard, and generally loved life. Those were some of our happiest times. We focused on gratitude and simplicity and just enjoyed being together and living well.
As I've said before, the one thing I've learned to count on is that things change. In 1998, as my son entered middle school and my daughter was entering fourth grade, my doctors gave me a set of diagnoses that would change our lives and the result was my permanent and total disability. I'd love to tell you that I got out the gratitude journal and thanked God for the chance to learn what it was like to live with chronic illness, but that was not the case. I dissoved into a morass of depression, frustration, self-pity, and bittnerness over what seemed to me to be the systematic destruction of everything I loved about my life. Within a matter of months, everything turned from light to darkness and I had no idea how to get away from that mindset.
Mind you, I tried. I did. I tried hypnosis, psychotherapy, religion (I must have visited at least a dozen different denominations searching for something), music therapy, art therapy, talking to friends (whining would be much more accurate), working part-time, self-employment, retail therapy, eating my emotions (I gained 80 lbs. in less than six months), staying busy, staying in bed, socializing, isolating, and many other coping mechanisms. I couldn't see the forest for the trees. Everywhere I looked, it seemed that the deck was so stacked against any possibility of "success," I just gave up.
For ten years, I wandered in the wilderness of my own disappointments. From 1998 until 2008, I lived a desolate life, existing rather than actually living. This is not something that is easy to acknowledge, admit or even embrace, although I've learned to do just that.
My children were protected from the majority of it. As divorced parents, my ex-husband and I came to an agreement that since they had lived with me during their early, formative years, and that he was now earning a great income and had means to provide for them in a way I could not, they would live with him until I could get back on my feet. He was in a great subdivision, with pool and tennis courts and lots of kids their ages and they actually enjoyed having that time to become more intimately acquainted with their dad. Our homes were just a few miles apart, so I saw them very regularly, and was able (most of the time) to put on a happy face during my visits with them. The pressure to maintain that facade on a daily basis was removed, and for that, I was grateful. On a personal level, however, I continued to sink in the quagmire of my own personal hell. Numerous diseases, in varying stages of treatment, non-treatment and mistreatment, took their toll and I was dying one day at a time, at least in my own mind.
Four years ago, in 2008, I was liberated. God may not have opened the gates of Heaven and let me in, but He surely opened the gates of Hell and let me out. On a day when I thought all was lost, there was a moment of Divine intervention, and for the first time, I realized all was not lost. I may have been lost, but not to God and not to any of those who loved me. I turned back to the lessons that had been long-ago abandoned and began to practice certain principles, certain life lessons in an effort to reclaim life and affirm it. Gratitude journaling became a daily practice again, and over time, living a grateful life has become as natural as breathing. Today, there are so many mindful moments of gratitude I can scarcely keep count on a daily basis. If I were to journal them all, I would fill multiple pages each day. So, I'm selective about what I write, but I do try to pause each time I'm actually mindful and thank my Creator for whatever blessing I've been given.
Practicing the art of gratitude has enabled me to do things I never thought possible. For example, it has allowed me to detach from judgment. I've been able, for the most part, to refrain from looking at situations, places, things or people as "good" or "bad." One of the most surprising lessons of gratitude itself is the awareness that I can't put those judgments in place because I don't know what's good or bad. I know how something may feel at any given moment, but feelings tend to be gone with the wind and replaced by another feeling. I have personally experienced that sensation that something was bad, only to find in another moment in time that it was a great blessing! In detaching from judgments, I've been able to develop a much stronger faith and an abiding trust that my Creator has this whole business of running the world in His hands and I don't need to try and help. I don't have to understand things like I used to. I just wait and look for the lesson and hope I'm aware enough to see the blessings.
Sometimes, I'm accused of having a Pollyanna outlook. Ok, maybe I do. And trust me, I don't do this perfectly, although I've gotten much better about keeping my lack of gratitude to myself on any given day. Think of what gratitude does and you may understand why it has become a way of life! Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others.
Robert A. Emmons of The University of California, Davis along with Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami did some groundbreaking research into the benefits of gratitude. In one of their experiments, they had part of a control group list just five things a week for which they were grateful; another part of the control group did not participate. After just two months of recording weekly gratitude, the members of the journal group reported feeling more optimistic, happier, and they worked out more and had less physical problems to report. Interestingly, there was a third part of the control group who recorded their disappointments and dissatisfactions. The gratitude group's overall happiness and contentment factor was a full 25% higher than the frustrated group. Emmons' research is outlined in his book "Thanks! How the Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier."
In an article last year for Huffington Post, the author and speaker Ocean Robbins noted:
Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude group reported more hours of sleep each night, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control group.
Perhaps most tellingly, the positive changes were markedly noticeable to others. According to the researchers, "Spouses of the participants in the gratitude (group) reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control (group)."
You don't need to have a lot to be mindful of what you've got, according to Edward Diener, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, who has studied extensively life satisfaction of people from various cultures. He found relatively little differentiation in the levels of dissatisfaction among people living in poverty in India and in the relatively affluent culture of Japan. However, in Ireland, which is essentially a "count your blessings" culture, the life satisfaction levels were very high. There does seem to be a direct correlation between placing too much emphasis on materialism with life dissatisfaction. Those who are able to see the gratitude in the more spiritual, from family to the general beauty of the world around us, had a much higher level of life satisfaction.
Yes, I am a very grateful woman. This is a lesson that has served me well and it is one that many of my friends embrace as well. I hope, if you may be struggling with what appear at this moment to be burdens in your life, you may find some solace in gratitude. It took me time to respond to the idea of gratitude in all things. I pray it doesn't take you as long. The Apostle Paul may have said it best:
I'm speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it's important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. Romans 12:3 (The Message)