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The Power of Gratitude

Dec 09, 2016 06:55PM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger

By Erica L. Shames


“The simplest and deepest way to make who we are at one with the world is through the kinship of gratitude.“ – Mark Nepo

The research on gratitude is little more than a decade old, but already scientists are finding powerful reasons to embrace it. Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, is recognized as the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude.  He says you don’t need good events in your life to feel gratitude. Rather, grateful people tend to reframe what happens to them. 

“They don’t focus on what they’re lacking; they make sure they see the good in what they have,” he says. “Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions.”

Encouraging words

For most of us, gratitude doesn’t come easily—and even less so when our lives are busy or in turmoil. That’s why it makes sense, advocates Joan Hatcher, Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Williamsport, to adopt a practice of mindfulness as a first step.

“I don’t introduce gratitude directly,” says Hatcher. “I talk about the blocks to it or our inner critic—what do you feel frustrated with or how do you deal with negative feelings? The movement towards gratitude will be intentional.”

One tactic, advocates Hatcher, is to have a mindful intention from the moment you wake up. “Something as simple as pausing as your feet touch the ground, rather than popping out of bed—can be a moment in which you can say to yourself, ‘Today I really want to pay attention to the blessings in my life.’ Otherwise, life takes over and you just react.”

Susquehanna Health’s Licensed Clinical Social Worker Kim Maser, who incorporates gratitude into her therapy practice, concurs.  Mindfulness, she says, lays the groundwork for being thankful for our lives. She cites psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“Mindfulness,” says Kabat-Zinn, “is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Maser employs different interventions, including cognitive behavioral (CBT) strategies, in her therapy practice. “CBT targets maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors which hijack one’s ability to experience joy and gratitude,” she explains. “This model of treatment helps individuals identify and replace distorted thinking with more positive and realistic thinking. Homework might include keeping a gratitude journal.”

However, Hatcher cautions against forcing yourself into a gratitude journal practice before you’re ready. “If you go from a position of pain to a situation in which you feel forced to feel grateful, it’s too mechanistic,” she explains. “You may have all the good intentions in the world, but if you force it, gratitude can become a chore.”

The good news

Scientists have uncovered a host of benefits that result when people practice gratitude consistently, including stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure; higher levels of positive emotions; more joy, optimism and happiness; better sleep; acting with more generosity and compassion; and feeling less lonely and isolated. And some of the benefits are more subtle.

Perhaps most compelling way to view gratitude, cites Janice Kaplan in her book The Gratitude Diaries, is to view gratitude as an antidote to stress. “When you are grateful,” she says, “all the signposts of stress—like anger, anxiety and worry—diminish. Gratitude lowers stress. Less stress means less inflammation. Less inflammation means you’re not as susceptible to disease.”

And employing gratitude as a daily practice can actually change the way we view the world.

“We don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to express what we’re grateful for,” encourages Maser. “We can reflect on our good fortune throughout the year. “No matter how conditioned we are toward self-destructive thought patterns and behavior, we can decondition these habits by learning to respond to stimuli in more adaptive ways so gratitude can flourish.”

Maser cites the productive use of mindfulness interventions, such as loving-kindness guided meditation, writing a letter or making a phone call to someone you appreciate to express your gratitude to them. “Identify what you appreciate in yourself and attributes that have brought you thus far, through all of life’s challenges; and pay it forward: volunteer, and engage in random acts of kindness,” she encourages.

 “One thing that happens,” adds Hatcher, as a result of having this mindful intention, “is you become more aware of the things you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed—things that begin to slow you down and allow you to be present in the moment.”

Where we go from here

When gratitude isn’t possible due to the extreme nature of a situation—an illness, for example—Hatcher encourages the observation of what she calls the ripples. “With everything that is extreme or difficult, there are ripple effects over the next day or two that come from experiencing the intensity of the difficulty,” she says. “As difficult and painful as it may be in the moment, watch what happens—good things, unexpected things happen that wouldn’t have had this event not occurred.”

Through the mindfulness practice, believes Hatcher, people can come to a place of gratitude and come to appreciate the larger view. “Life isn’t about just one event or one moment, and how difficult it is—you have to view it within the context of your life. The German theologian, philosopher and mystic Eckhart said, ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank-you that will be enough.’”

Maser says that learning to place our attention on what we are grateful for requires the same discipline and practice needed to learn any new skill, so being patient is paramount. 

“During the holidays, if we find humor amidst the bustle, we will enjoy ourselves more and be better company to others,” she says. “We can let go of the expectation or demand that things go a particular way, and instead appreciate any pleasant moments as they unfold.”

For tools on how to use gratitude to deal with holiday stress, visit SusquehananLife.com/WebExtras

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