Today’s post on gratitude is a newspaper article written by Naila Francis, a reporter from the newspaper, The Intelligencer. A few weeks ago we had a very nice discussion about gratitude, how I utilize it, and how I felt when my mother passed away.
By: Naila Francis
Although it was a tough decision to make, when David Lello decided to move his ailing mother into the home he shared with his partner a few years ago, he wasn’t prepared for just how painful the experience would be.
Confronted with her increasing dementia and growing irascibility, he struggled not only with the fading vision of the self-sufficient woman he knew as Mom but with the knowledge that he would eventually have to place her in a nursing home.
Yet through it all, Lello, who lives in Doylestown Township, made a practice of being intentionally grateful.
“We were grateful for the person she was before all of this dementia and Alzheimer’s began to take the real Mary away from us and for the many years that we had her,” he says. “We found a great deal of consolation reminiscing on happy memories.”
He acknowledges that his attitude of gratitude is what brought him gracefully through a difficult transition, including the eventual relocation of his mom to Neshaminy Manor’s long-term care facility.
“The outcome of all of this could have been disastrous because it could have ruined our lives,” says Lello, “but there was really just a sense of positive feelings and a story of tremendous spiritual success.”
Connie Keener considers herself a naturally optimistic and grateful person. Yet when she fell at her sister’s pool in July, breaking her hip in two places, the road to recovery didn’t immediately allow for much positive thinking — until s
he began actively seeking things for which she could give thanks.
“I started being grateful for the stuff I could do every day that was in my realm of possibility for that point,” says Keener, who only recently returned to work as a nurse and still has about another month of physical therapy to go. “There were so many things I took for granted despite my gratitude and then when you can’t do it, or don’t have it, it’s just amazing. … What this really became for me was, ‘Where’s the gift in every day?’ ”
Instead of viewing her injury purely from the physical perspective, the Doylestown Borough resident saw it as an opportunity for her to learn to be on the receiving end of another’s thoughtfulness.
“I realized how important it was to receive things from other people — the gift of their company, a message or card. I was not so good at that before,” she says. “I was much more willing to be a giver. But everywhere along the way, with everybody I’ve dealt with, I felt like they went beyond just being nice to really caring for and supporting me where they could.”
It may seem remarkable that both Lello and Keener could move through and emerge from their respective experiences with so much to be thankful for. But their stories support a growing field of research which indicates that adopting a grateful attitude can help people to better cope with challenges while boosting their overall physical and psychological well-being.
Sure, we tend to turn to thoughts of the things we’re grateful for on Thanksgiving, but just because the holiday has passed is no reason to give up counting our blessings.
“Gratitude, appreciation and thankfulness are really the opposite of negative thinking,” says Robin Bilazarian, a Mount Laurel, N.J., psychotherapist. “Negative thinking spirals you down into depression and discontent. But gratitude is like a switch that goes off in your head, where you can begin to focus on what is going right, what is going well a
nd what are some of the things that I can be grateful for.
“It’s really quite a mental health benefit if you can switch from the negative to the positive, and gratitude is a way to do it.”
In recent years, scientists and practitioners of gratitude have tried to measure its benefits, from both an academic and practical perspective and as part of the growing field of positive psychology, which examines the virtues that make life worth living and enable communities and individuals to flourish.
Gratitude, in particular, says Robert Emmons, has long been ignored and under appreciated by science and society. As one of the foremost authorities in the field, Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California Davis, has done much in the last decade to promote and distribute research on the nature of gratitude, as well as its causes and consequences for our well-being. He is the author of several books on the subject, including “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” “The Psychology of Gratitude” (with Michael E. McCullough) and “Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul” (with Joanna Hill).
Making gratitude a regular practice, says Emmons, is essential.
“Gratitude is about thinking,” he says. “There is an old saying that to be thankful is to be thoughtful. But if we go through our days in a daze, on autopilot, we cannot be aware of the many ways in which we are supported and sustained by others ….
“(Gratitude) is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. We ignore it at our own peril.”
A boost for body and mind
The benefits have been documented in several clinical trials, including a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003, in which Emmons and McCullough, a University of Miami psychologist, followed more than 100 undergraduate students broken into three groups — one recording five things they were grateful for on a weekly basis, the other five complaints and the third just five events — for 10 consecutive weeks. The students tallying their blessings at the end of each week reported a generally more positive outlook on their lives than those in the other two groups, worked out more frequently and had fewer health complaints.
A similar more recent study among sixth- and seventh-graders at a middle school in Dix Hills, N.Y., which Emmons conducted with Jeffrey J. Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University, revealed that the students who regularly found something to be grateful for were more optimistic and satisfied with school than their complaining peers.
Results can be even more dramatic and long-lasting.
“Gratitude can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being, and spur acts of helpfulness, generosity and cooperation,” says Emmons, who cites the following statistics:
People are 25 percent happier if they keep gratitude journals — daily records of several things they’re grateful for — sleep a half hour more per evening and exercise 33 percent more each week compared to persons who are not keeping the journals. They achieve up to a 10 percent reduction in systolic blood pressure and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20 percent.
Additionally, notes Emmons, lives marked by frequent positive emotions of joy, love and gratitude last up to seven years longer than lives bereft of those feelings.
Bilazarian, who also works with the Employee Assistance Program at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, can see an immediate change in her clients who shift their focus to gratitude:
“When I work with people who just are blue, who see everything through dark glasses, when you ask them to start thinking about gratitude and things that they appreciate in their families, in their jobs or whatever, you see a difference just in the way they hold their body, and you see them make a cognitive shift where the glasses come off and they begin to smile and they go, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’
“There’s always something around that you can be grateful for: It may be your health, it may be something that’s working well in your family, that you have shelter, that you are getting a paycheck even if it’s only one and you’re used to a two-family paycheck, or even that you’re not on the news.”
Getting into the zone
Yet feeling grateful on a routine basis may not come easily to some, especially in the face of life’s challenges.
“You have to be intentional about it. If you start looking for the blessings in your day to day, you can make a significant change in your life,” says Mary Beth Sammons, a journalist and marketing specialist and also the co-author of “Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude.”
Sammons reflects that she always considered herself naturally inclined toward being grateful when she and friend Nina Lesowitz began writing the book, which was published last year and includes real stories of people transformed by the power of gratitude, as well as practices, quotes and blessings to help one live a more grateful life. Yet in the middle of writing “Living Life as a Thank You,” she lost her job, and then shortly after that, her father, who’d been in hospice care.
“I really had to learn to practice what I was preaching,” she says. “Now, I’m much more laser-focused on the small but significant things in my life that I took for granted.”
Among the tools she began using to keep her in the mode of gratitude was the old-fashioned art of sending thank-you notes.
“When somebody gets a thank-you note for something they did for you that they think is so small, they’re really grateful, even if it’s a teacher that was extra-kind to your child or a printer that did a good job with an order,” she says. “You have to make a point to look at the people around you and focus on the things that they are doing for you.”
Keener credits her already-established practice of keeping a gratitude journal — according to Emmons, translating thoughts into concrete language makes them more real — with helping her to find the many silver linings in recovering from her injury. She also became increasingly thankful for her parents, who set an early example of living with gratitude.
“My mother was incredibly grateful for so many things, and every day, she would express that. She and dad grew up practically orphans, and when they finally had their home, it was such a joy for them, and they were so grateful,” she recalls.
Lello, who admits that he initially struggled with adopting an appreciative attitude once his mother moved in, joined a local group, whose purpose is to support each others’ intentions for living their best life while expressing gratitude for the things they have. Meeting weekly, and still stating his intentions and blessings daily, helped him to develop a discipline.
“It takes a while. It’s not something that happens magically,” he says. “But once you really work on it, it becomes easier, and that frame of thinking begins to filter into all areas of your life. It wasn’t only about dealing with mom. You begin to be more appreciative of what you have, of the people who are in your life, the surroundings you live in, even your community.”
Beyond just a feeling
From such a perspective, gratitude becomes an approach to life, not just a feeling in a particular moment. According to Emmons, grateful individuals are often able to view life’s sorrows, pains and disappointments as gifts, allowing them to transform tragedy into opportunity.
“We realize that there is more to life than our losses, and gratitude for life gives us a realistic perspective by which to view our losses and not succumb to victimhood or despair,” he says. “Grateful individuals begin to heal from past wounds and look forward to the future with a fresh affirmation toward life. We realize that we can be grateful even if we don’t feel grateful.”
That doesn’t mean glossing over less-positive emotions.
“It’s not saying, ‘Just be happy and the world will turn out perfect for you.’ I’m more of a realist. It’s good for people to feel their emotions because we are emotional beings, so when something bad happens, experience that but don’t sit in it longer than you need,” says Paul B. Taubman II, co-facilitator of the recently completed 30 Days of Gratitude 2010 Project, which brought people together from across the country, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to practice being grateful for the 30 days of November to see how doing so would enrich their lives.
The Somerville, N.J., resident has been keenly attuned to the blessings in his life since he was a teenager and his family fell on hard financial times. More recently, when Taubman, who also writes the blog AllAboutGratitude.com, lost his mother to small-cell lung cancer, he says he went through one of the toughest periods in his life.
“When she passed away, I felt sorrow, everything you feel when a parent passes away,” he says. “But rather than wallow in that woe-is-me area that I could have, I decided to focus on the things that I was grateful for. I was grateful that I could be with her during her last days. I was grateful for those times growing up that she was with me. I was thinking about all the places and the things we did together and the joy and the happiness that was in our life.”
But even remembering the bad times can awaken us to gratitude.
“We associate gratitude with dwelling on the good, but recalling the worst times in our lives can be beneficial,” says Emmons. “To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. The realization that we made it through past tough times sets up a fertile contrast for present gratitude.”
Sammons admits that the resilience she’s developed by becoming a gratitude practitioner sometimes makes her worried that she’s not more worried.
“But I just know that whatever comes my way, I’ll be able to handle it,” she says. “I’ve become so much more ‘This, too, shall pass.’ I just try to keep it simple and realize what I have.”
Naila Francis can be reached at 215-345-3149 or nfrancis@phillyBurbs.com. Follow Naila on Twitter at twitter.com/Naila_Francis.
The Gratitude Guru