I first learned about gratitude as a potential response to life in Alanon, back in the day. When my recovering alcoholic husband announced that he wanted a divorce and I discovered that he was involved with a woman he met in AA, I ran to my Alanon sponsor for support with my swirling anxious thoughts. My sponsor challenged me to resist the temptation of falling into the enormous chasm of fear triggered by the thought of a divorce in 18 months.
She encouraged me to stay present in every moment and to maintain a daily gratitude practice of acknowledging the goodness of life even as the world around and within me seemed to be falling apart. She promised me that if I stayed awake and present, I would be ready for that far-off day when the “no-fault” divorce would be finalized.
By the time he and I met at the courthouse 18 months later, I was studying at Princeton Theological Seminary and in love with my new life of study, exploration, and writing. As we embraced after the divorce proceedings, I offered him a gratitude blessing, “I’m grateful for the gift you gave me. Yes, my world crashed when you left, but it needed to crash. The life I live today is more authentic and joyful. Peace be with you.”
I have continued an almost-daily gratitude practice for decades and in the process have explored the important role gratitude plays in our physical and emotional well-being and in our healthy adjustment to life’s twists and turns. I have come to believe that gratitude, as a response to life, is a cost-effective way to manage anxiety and increase body, mind, and spirit wellness.
Gratitude and Well-Being
The positive emotion of gratitude is one of the most effective interventions to shift the content of our thoughts because it changes our brain chemistry. The brain is a single processor, which means it can only process one thing at a time. When you focus on the things you appreciate in your life, there’s no space in the brain for anger, complaint, or worry. In this way, gratitude contributes to our well-being.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Michael McCullough, who edited the first scholarly volume devoted to a fundamental human quality of gratitude, there are many emotions and personality traits important to well-being, but gratitude is uniquely important. They focused on gratitude as an emotion. In their scientific experiments, individuals were asked to keep track of their experiences of gratitude.
Emmons and McCullough found that when individuals kept track of their experiences of gratitude, they experienced more gratitude and more of the positive changes associated with it. Grateful people experience these qualities of well-being:
The practice of shifting our thoughts from criticism and complaint to gratitude strengthens our neural pathways to look for what’s good in our lives, which then makes it easier for our brains to find things to appreciate. Strengthen your gratitude “muscle” by using it. Add a daily acknowledgement of your “gratitudes” to your mindfulness practice. I love to walk so I incorporate gratitude into my hikes and walking meditations. With each step I acknowledge a gratitude: my friends/the sunrise/the library/my new project/swiss chard from the farm. My entire walk is deeply nourishing. Be inspired by these gratitude quotations:
“Keeping your body healthy is an expression of gratitude to the whole cosmos— the trees, the clouds, everything.” Thich Nhat Hanh
“Our bodies, apart from their brilliant role as drawing exercises, are the temples of our being. Like the bodies of all fauna, they deserve both our study and our appreciation.” Robert Genn
“Take a moment to pause, especially before you eat and thank all the people who made your meal possible, from those that grew the food, to those who harvested it, sold it, and prepared it for you. Expand your gratitude practice to share with others all you are grateful for!” Kelley Grimes
“Your body feels everything you think and say. All your pain and joy, experience and knowledge, forgotten secrets and deepest truths, get recorded in the cellular library of your flesh. That’s why I suggest taking time to appreciate your body. Feed it with good thoughts, words and intentions.” Steve Gold
“Gratitude is so close to the bone of life, pure and true, that it instantly stops the rational mind, and all its planning and plotting. That kind of let go is fiercely threatening. I mean, where might such gratitude end?” Regina Sara Ryan
“Life is swift and precious while in our grasp. Loving yourself is such a small act of appreciation for the everlasting Love that has breathed you into being and on whose wings you will be carried when it's time to leave this life.” Paula Reeves
“Focusing on this very moment is a powerful practice. Being grateful for what’s happening now can be uplifting even if the moment before we felt down. A feedback loop can then emerge where the more thankful we become, the more connected we feel to ourselves, one another, and the planet.” Susan Greenland
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melodie Beattie
“Embrace your ordinary life, whatever its wrapping, for in the embrace you will hear the whisper of Gratitude. Listen for her in the ordinary activities of your day, the ordinary encounters with loved ones, and the ordinary challenges that greet you each morning. She speaks from the depths of you, in the voice of your ordinary life.” Patricia Lynn Reilly