I had my first run-in with gratitude as a child; my parents would insist I say “Thank you” for EVERYTHING. At that time I looked on gratitude the way I viewed brushing my teeth: it was one of those things that grown-ups made you do. I didn’t realize it then, but the act of thanking people taught me to appreciate the good things in life.
I love to read; my view of the world has been influenced by some great books. I remember years ago reading Dr. Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Dr. Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi prison camps, wrote about fellow prisoners who behaved with grace and dignity in the camps. He witnessed amazing examples of human compassion, such as men who walked through the camp comforting others and giving away their bread. Dr. Frankl said this taught him that no matter what happens, human beings can choose their attitude. He called this the only freedom which cannot be taken away from us. After reading his book, I began to look at my own life in a new light. If prisoners of war could look on the bright side, I surely could find something in my life to feel good about.
My favorite book about gratitude is M.J. Ryan’s “Attitudes of Gratitude.” She talks about the benefits of living gratefully and how to practice gratitude in our lives. In the section titled “Gratitude Promotes Health,” Ryan tells of a woman named Josephine who healed a malignant brain tumor by feeling thankful about her life. The theory behind this story is that “scientific research has begun to indicate that positive emotions, such as gratitude and love, have beneficial effects on health. They do so by strengthening and enhancing the immune system [by releasing endorphins, which enable] the body to resist disease and recover more quickly from illness.” Endorphins have other positive effects, like killing pain. On the flip side, “negative emotions such as worry, anger, and hopelessness” increase adrenaline and slow down the healing process. I have found this to be true in my own experience, especially dealing with chronic illness. The more I focus on being grateful, the better I feel – emotionally and physically.
Today is a good example of my relationship with gratitude. I have had a nasty flu bug, and this morning I woke up feeling pretty sick. My mind naturally drifts to the negative, so I was thinking “Why me?” and “It’s not fair.” (There were some other thoughts as well, but you probably get the idea.) At some point it occurred to me that my crummy attitude was making me feel worse. That’s when I decided to work on this article, hoping to improve my point of view. I started by reading my notes and books about gratitude. Magically my outlook began to improve. This afternoon, as my thoughts became hopeful, it occurred to me that “maybe I will get over the flu someday.” Then my friend Stef called, which served to remind me that I have wonderful friends and family to be grateful for.
My step-son Ken says “Gratitude is very important, because without gratitude you can’t be content.” As of now I still have a stomach ache, but I don’t mind so much.
In closing, I would like to suggest an experiment that I found in “Attitudes of Gratitude.” Tomorrow morning pay attention to everything that goes wrong or you don’t like: you run out of milk, traffic is bad, you hate your boss, the weather is too hot. Then in the afternoon focus on what is going well that you appreciate: you get a fun e-mail, you have a nice lunch with friends, your dog is cute, your house doesn’t burn down. You may want to write down your gratitude list. At bedtime, think about your day—did you feel better in the morning or in the afternoon? I would love to hear your observations. My e-mail address is [email protected].