3 steps to a more grateful life
My story on gratitude and how it can change your life, running in the Nov. 24 issue of OSV Newsweekly:
German mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you said your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Gratitude has that kind of power, not just in prayer, but in the most ordinary moments of our lives. When we are thankful, grateful and appreciative of what we have — even the things that don’t necessarily warrant a special thank-you prayer — we tend to be more generous, loving, patient and kind toward others.
Gratitude shifts our focus away from our own complaints and problems. If we are busy noticing the blessings in our lives — even something as simple as a beautiful sunrise coming up over the highway as we drive to work, or our family gathered around the dinner table after a long day — we are less likely to wallow in self-pity.
But that doesn’t mean developing an attitude of gratitude is easy. It requires action and determination to look for those moments of grace, even when they are hidden among the thorns of disappointment.
“To be grateful is a characteristic of humility, and that in itself opens the heart to grace, opens the heart to others, and allows you not to put yourself at the center of the conversation but others,” said Father Francis Hoffman, JCD, executive director of Relevant Radio, who is known as Father Rocky. “Gratitude naturally takes us away from ourselves and opens us to others and to God, and that always brings joy with it.”
Those who count their blessings in concrete ways — written in gratitude journals or on slips of paper collected in a gratitude jar or box, even on Facebook for all the world to see — do seem to give off a sense of joy, one that ripples outward, as if every blessing they name is a pebble tossed into our collective consciousness.
“I like that idea, writing down a list of things that you should be grateful for. I encourage people to begin with the things that you take for granted,” Father Rocky told Our Sunday Visitor, suggesting people start with simple blessings, such as being able to walk and talk, or having a warm home and running water, because too often we’re “out of touch” with the reality that many people in our world don’t have the most basic things.
A gratitude practice can be as simple as opening up a cheap spiral notebook and jotting down, on a daily basis, the things that bring a smile to your face, from the ridiculous (your cat batting a crumpled piece of paper around the house) to the sublime (a good diagnosis from the doctor).
Even the smallest nods toward gratitude remind us that the goodness we experience comes from somewhere outside ourselves, from “a benevolent source of life,” said Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany, New York.
“It stimulates the hope that we are not alone, isolated or abandoned,” Bishop Scharfenberger told OSV. “At the same time, gratitude is a response that makes a demand on our own creativity. It challenges us to become more than what we are and, therefore, to grow out of any vicious cycle or stagnant state — such as worry, fear, helplessness or even victimization. It is both a gift and a call.”
Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, conducted a scientific study that demonstrated how actively being grateful can positively affect both physical and emotional health.
According to his study results, participants who kept weekly gratitude journals “exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming weeks compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.” He also found that those who kept gratitude journals were more likely to accomplish personal goals and to help others in need of support or assistance.
Elizabeth Figueroa, a clinical social worker based in Georgia, told OSV that humans are wired for connection, and gratitude is “a lens through which we can notice ordinary places of connection in our day-to-day lives.”
By practicing gratitude, we train ourselves to pay attention to small moments of grace found amid the mundane moments of life.
Figueroa said that gratitude is appealing because it’s universal.
“The practice of cultivating awareness is central to spiritual and psychological worldviews alike,” she said. “Over the past few decades, the field of psychology has become more open to spirituality, and popular spirituality has drawn upon the gifts of psychology.
“Gratitude, it seems, is a practice in which spirituality and psychology have found common ground,” Figueroa added. “Science is finally confirming a truth that spiritual people have known for centuries: cultivating gratitude makes us happier, less isolated and more connected to ourselves, to others and to God.”
Father Rocky recommends people use vocal prayers, such as the Angelus, grace before meals and prayers of thanksgiving after Communion, as well as mental prayer to focus their gratitude, expressing thanks for everything from grace and mercy to the Blessed Mother and the Holy Spirit to music and sports.
When it comes to gratitude, nothing is out of bounds.
Father Rocky says people who manage to maintain an attitude of gratitude even during deep sorrows and struggles do so from a place of God-given grace.
“That takes faith, doesn’t it?” he said. “And faith itself is a gift. Every priest has come across people who are objectively in painful and difficult situations and discover that they have this marvelous peace and serenity and joy in the midst of the cross, and it’s not a natural experience; it’s a supernatural experience because they have this deep faith in God that is at work in all of this. The expression of gratitude in those circumstances is almost like a barometer of the faith we have.”
That’s not to say that if we get angry and upset we don’t have faith, because it is only natural to get angry and upset with God sometimes. In those cases, both Father Rocky and Bishop Scharfenberger recommend adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament, meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary and confession.
“You can really feel the grace working within you to change, to say, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me, and I’d like to begin again.’ We can get caught in that downward spiral, and we break the spiral by God’s grace, which comes from contrition but also through the sacraments. They’re very helpful,” Father Rocky said. “Grace really affects us, really improves us.”
According to Figueroa, true gratitude doesn’t ignore life’s difficulties but, instead, locates God “precisely in the midst of the messy places.”
“Gratitude does not pretend that challenges do not exist; instead, the practice of gratitude can help us find God in these challenges. Not only does gratitude push us to discover places of abundance over scarcity, it also teaches us that God is present even amidst the scarcity,” Figueroa said, adding that it’s something she has to continually practice in her own life.
Once you begin to develop that attitude of gratitude, it grows and spreads.
“Then you can recognize God in people around you, and in nature, and in the seasons, and in everything,” Father Rocky said. “It allows in the presence of God and opens you to a situation of joy.”
Bishop Scharfenberger stressed that frustration over the struggles we may encounter in daily life — and even the most grateful among us feels frustrated now and then — can be a sign that our growth and potential are being blocked.
So for those of us who often find ourselves stuck in a moment of sadness, anger or despair, there’s no reason to lose hope or think that we, too, can’t move ourselves back toward gratitude and joy. The key, however, is realizing that we can’t do it alone; rather, we need God’s help.
“Gratitude becomes a recognition and a confession that ‘I need a savior,’ that ‘I cannot save myself. The source of any hope lies outside myself,’” Bishop Scharfenberger said. “Gratitude is more than an attitude or a habit or a tendency; it is a relationship with my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. It goes beyond being grateful for the gift of life and all the good things of the world, even the gift of family and friendship.
“It is gratitude for being rescued from the pit of darkness by the Lord, who chose to save me even before I realized I needed to be saved,” he added. “It is in such darker moments that what gratitude really means becomes clearest and most real: gratitude is a relationship with that person who loves me with an unconditional love. The only just response to the call of that gift is gratitude.”
Of course, not everyone is inclined to see even dark moments as a gift, and that is why we need to nurture the practice of gratitude when times are good. If we lay a strong foundation of faith focused on our blessings, we will have something to shore us up when those storm clouds inevitably come rolling in.
“I’ve found that a gratitude practice helps us to notice what is already taking place in our ordinary, daily lives,” Figueroa said. “Gratitude opens up a new world to us, when we start to notice the gifts that are always available to us, always surrounding us, waiting to be seen. Gratitude can give us new eyes to see what has been there the whole time.”
It’s critical, too, to remember that God is always present.
“Even in the most desolate of circumstances, we are oftentimes surprised by the abundance of gifts that somehow, impossibly, seem to show up — a kind look from a stranger, a nurturing friend, a new insight or glimpse of hope,” she added. “God provides us with enough, and a practice of gratitude can help us notice this.”
Click HERE for my related feature on three people who are living examples of these gratitude practices.