Gratitude lifts spirit not just on Thanksgiving

The winter of 1620-1621 wasn’t especially harsh by New England standards, but scurvy and starvation and cholera made it nearly unbearable.

Huddled aboard the small ship Mayflower where it was docked in the Massachusetts Bay, the ranks of the 102 men, women and children who’d left Plymouth, England, in September 1620 painfully dwindled.

They’d wanted freedom and opportunity, but they reaped bitterness. They dug more graves than they built homes. Only half of them survived.

But spring brought friends, members of the Abenaki and Wampanoag peoples who showed the starving Europeans how to cultivate corn, draw sap from the maple trees, avoid poisonous plants and catch fish in the rivers. Through the summer, hope grew. By autumn, they knew they’d survive another winter.

And they were so grateful. They organized a three-day feast with their friends. They couldn’t know what tragedy the future would bring, so in that moment they gave thanks.

“I would maintain,” wrote British author G.K. Chesterton, “that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

For the corn that grew, for the sap that flowed, for the winds that blew gentle and the rain that fell soft, they gave thanks. The forward walk, the sun rising and setting, the turn of the Earth taught the essential lesson that gratitude is good for the soul.

“Gratitude is a positive thing,” said Brenda Holland, a clinical psychologist in Delta. “It brings the mood up to think positive thoughts.”

Grateful people “report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress,” reported Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and leading gratitude researcher. “The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant-feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions. Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.”

Dr. Jeffrey J. Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University, recently surveyed 1,035 high school students and discovered that the ones who expressed the most feelings of gratitude had higher GPAs and more friends. His research will be published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

“That’s one of the things we really find with our volunteers and our staff, too, that people who spend their lives really being thankful for what they have and trying to improve other people’s lives just have a better outlook,” said Kerri Mosinski, chief clinical officer for Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado. “For the most part, they’re healthier psychologically and physically.”

It’s a gratitude not just for the big things — family, health, prosperity — but for the little ones: the first bite of a crisp apple, a lung full of mountain air, a hop-skip-jump into a warm house, a good night’s sleep, a belly laugh, a full tank of gas, a quiet moment, a hand to hold. These are the threads of life, the sweetest blessings, and they are vital.

“One of the things we really work on (at the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center) is gratitude,” said Capt. Dan Wilson of the Salvation Army. “It’s part of what helps someone in recovery stay sober. Instead of thinking negatively, people keep a gratitude list. It gets you out of yourself.”

Wilson said when he struggled through depression as a teenager, when the well seemed too deep and impossible to escape, he decided to heed the Bible’s admonition to offer prayers of thanksgiving. It was work, a daily effort to look inside and outside himself and give God thanks for every good thing he noticed, he said.

“That was one of the main things that helped totally change my thinking,” Wilson said. “It took a few months, but one day I realized I wasn’t thinking the same way I used to.”

Mosinski said her 17 years with Hospice have intensified not only her feelings of gratitude for every good thing in her life, but how she expresses them.

“I tell my family every day that I love them, because you don’t ever know when your last day is,” she said. “I spend a lot of time telling my friends and family how much they mean to me, how grateful I am for them.

“We do this gratitude exercise with people as they’re dying, learning to say, ‘I love you, I want to make sure you know I love you. I want to thank you for loving me. I want you to know I forgive you for anything you’ve done to me, and I want you to forgive me. And I want to thank you for being a part of my life.’ We work with patients on being able to say that to their families, to have closure. My thing is: I don’t want to be saying that when I’m dying.”

The work of gratitude is the journey of a lifetime. When the horizon looks gray and the future is cast in shadows, when wallets are empty and rage is the go-to emotion, when hopelessness is easy, when footsteps and hearts are heavy, gratitude is vital. It’s a port in the storm, the raft of hope in a surging sea.

“To express gratitude is gracious and honorable,” said Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live with gratitude ever in our hearts is to touch heaven.”

So, today is Thanksgiving. It’s a good day to be thankful for socks and the feet to put in them. To say thanks for sweet potatoes and the marshmallows on top. To feel grateful for the smell of pie baking, a couch cushion that molds perfectly to a bum, eyes that can see the sunrise, a canopy of blue sky overhead, the smile on a familiar, favorite face, a heart cradled in love.


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