Attitude of gratitude

Twenty years ago, my cousin-in-law Joelyn gave me The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I smiled, said ‘thank you’ and stuck it in a drawer. When I moved to Cyprus, everything in that drawer moved with me because it was easier than doing a cull. There it wound up stuck in another drawer until — probably two years later — I pulled it out and had a really good look at it.

The book posits that “[G]ratitude is the most passionate, transformative force in the cosmos. When we offer thanks to God or to another human being, gratitude gifts us with renewal, reflection, reconnection. Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies – those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life (is it abundant or is it lacking?) and the world (is it friendly or hostile?).”

Those who know me won’t be surprised to learn that my initial reaction was “yeah, right.” I already said ‘thank you’ when appropriate, so I was dubious about the “transformative force” of gratitude. But they say sometimes things happen when you need them and maybe, unbeknownst to me, this was my time. I read further and discovered a challenge: every day write down five things for which I was grateful. Hmmmmmmm. Really? Having nothing to lose, I decided to give it a try.

My initial entries showed little thought and even less depth: I was grateful for my family, my friends, my boyfriend, my apartment, a sunny day. Trite? Yes. Obvious? Also yes. Boring when repeated? Definitely yes. So I started looking for things to be grateful for during the day – not because I wanted to feel more gratitude but because I didn’t want to see myself as shallow, I didn’t want to be shallow.

And despite looking for the wrong reasons, I began recognising the little things that truly made my day. More important, I recognized how actively looking for things for which I was grateful did, in fact, have a transformative impact of my quality of life.

Of course, this is no surprise. Research by University of California, Davis professor Robert Emmons found that “simply keeping a gratitude journal — regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful — can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.” Research conducted by Dr Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, Dr Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and a host of others confirmed the efficacy of gratitude as a tool for enhancing an individual’s life.

Writing for Forbes magazine, a decidedly business-oriented publication, psychotherapist Amy Morin reviewed the available “gratitude” research and identified these benefits:

* Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. A 2014 study published in Emotion found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship … acknowledging other people’s contributions can lead to new opportunities.

* Gratitude improves physical health. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular check-ups with their doctors, which is likely to contribute to further longevity.

* Gratitude improves psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.

* Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. According to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky, grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kind. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.

* Grateful people sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.

* Gratitude improves self-esteem. Studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs — which is a major factor in reduced self-esteem — grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.

* Finally, gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for — even during the worst times of your life — fosters resilience.

Convinced? Or at least ready to give gratitude journaling a try? Bravo, after all what do you have to lose? There are lots of resources online to help you get started, from journal templates to gratitude prompts to examples of other people’s entries. But it doesn’t have to be complicated – you don’t have to buy the book. You can start with a regular notebook you dedicate to gratitude journaling and a decision to record a set number of things (and bullet points are fine) every day. This will encourage you to actively look for reasons to be grateful until it becomes a habit. Keep your journal somewhere convenient and commit to spending 15 minutes or so working on it every evening. That said, sometimes it’s OK to be grateful for being too busy (grateful you survived the day) or too tired (grateful to finally hit the sheets) to write the set number or even write at all.

As for me, it’s been 18 years and I’m still working on living an attitude of gratitude. Sometimes that means picking up the notebook and journaling again; other times reminding myself to find a reason to be grateful. It’s not always easy for me to remember that the jerkface who just cut me off in traffic and made me miss the light so I had to sit for another entire cycle actually gave me the opportunity to listen to more of one of my favourite jazz pianist’s CD Relax and Enjoy It. For that, I am grateful.

By Susan Eileen Day

Communications and Education

Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah

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