Living with Gratitude

(I am grateful to Pearl Braun-Dyck who inspired this lesson).

“Sing to the Lord with grateful praise; make music to our God on the harp.” Psalm 147:7

“It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, proclaiming your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp.” Psalm 92: 1-3

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures probably can recite such passages from the Psalms of King David that express gratitude and thanksgiving.  Whether or not we play a harp, we too can “make music to our God,” using heart-felt words to give voice to our gratitude. 

Too often we focus our attention and energies on what we do not have, on what we still want. Gratitude, by contrast, is our expression of appreciation for what we do have. 

Gratitude is a feeling. It can become an attitude and even a character trait.

The word itself comes to us from the Latin gratus, which meant “thankful” or “pleasing.” 

When we “say thanks” before eating a meal, we are expressing gratitude for our food. Sometimes we speak of saying “a Table Grace,” and appropriately this phrasing connects us with another early meaning of “gratitude”—grace.  We express gratitude; we experience grace.

The Roman statesman Cicero contended that gratitude was not only the greatest virtue but the mother of all the others. In our time, gratitude is the frequent subject of study by such Positive Psychologists as Dr. Robert A. Emmons, Dr. Michael McCullough, and Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman. Their research appears to confirm Cicero’s views—gratitude is associated with greater patience, humility, and wisdom. A number of scientifically controlled observations indicate that the practice of gratitude also yields significant benefits for the individual:

  • better sleep
  • less fatigue
  • less depression
  • more optimism
  • greater resilience
  • improved heart health
  • more active lifestyle
  • less vulnerable to burnout
  • better motivation
  • greater work satisfaction
  • increased life satisfaction
  • positive impact on children’s life satisfaction
  • increased self-esteem
  • stronger relationshipsincreased happiness

Many of those personal benefits are attested to by John Kralik, in 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life. A lawyer by profession, Kralik was at a particularly low period in his life. On New Year’s Day in 2008 he spent the afternoon hiking on a mountain trail near his Los Angeles home and ,as darkness, fell he became lost. Then he heard a voice that he could not explain. Coming from within or perhaps from beyond, the mystical voice said, “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want.” The experience changed Kralik’s life. As he recounts in his memoir, he resolved that during the months ahead, he would write 365 thank yous. Despite the many things wrong in his life, he would try to learn to be more grateful. 

John Kralik’s story is inspiring, reminding us that gratitude is about giving, not just getting. It is heartening to know that gratitude may benefit our individual well-being. Yet it also is about living more justly, learning to be satisfied with what we already have, grateful for the abundance we often take for granted and mindful of the needs of others. 

We live in a time and in a society that encourages overconsumption. Like John D. Rockefeller, who in his day was one of the world’s richest men, we may be tempted to answer the question “How much is enough?” by saying, “Just a little more.” 

“Consuming has become our primary means of self-definition and our leading pastime,” wrote Alan Durning, in his 1982 book How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. Consumption, he noted, is a ‘treadmill’ rather than a pathway to happiness. A better pathway, according to modern Positive Psychologists, is gratitude. Evidence from their research indicates “that a grateful disposition may counteract materialism.” Grateful people do not feel compelled to acquire new things in order to be satisfied.

Doris Longacre, an early pioneer in ‘Voluntary Simplicity,’ called the grateful approach “Living More with Less.” Like the words of the biblical Psalmist or of the Roman statesman Cicero, Longacre’s idea is not new.  The Apostle Paul expressed it well in his letter to the Christian church in Philippi. “…I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content,” he wrote. “I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned to be both full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul’s attitude of contentment and gratitude led to “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4: 7, 11-12).

Writing Guidelines:

  1. Gratitude Letters: 
  • A gratitude letter is written to someone for whom you are thankful. It can be sent by mail, but it is even more meaningful to deliver in person this letter of appreciation.
  • Think of people who have enriched your life in some way, perhaps through a tangible action, perhaps by the inspiring way they live and work.
  • Choose at least several of these people and write to them a thank-you note. Be as specific as you can about why and how you are grateful to them.

John Kralik found that composing 365 thank you’s helped him to recognize the human goodness of people “doing things because they cared…” He realized, after more than a year of daily acts of gratitude, that it did not mean he would get all that he wanted, but that he had all that he needed.

If you choose to write an extended series of Thank You’s, as Kralik did, you may wish to follow his advice of keeping the notes short and specific, using three or four sentences to “focus on the one good thing that person just did for you…” You do not need to write 365 thank you’s but if you do write a series of notes, you may find that like John Kralik you have developed “a notion of being blessed with grace…”

For more information:

2) Gratitude Journal (also known as “Counting Blessings”)

In a gratitude journal, one is writing for oneself. It is a way to become more aware of all that one has to be thankful for—people, situations, and things.

  • At least once a week, think back over the days and write down four or five things for which you are thankful. 
  • You might include in your list gratitude for avoiding negative situations (e.g. an illness, an accident, an argument) or reflections on how your life would be different if specific positive events had not occurred.
  • Also consider including your five senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell—and the ways they enrich your life.

In their research, Drs. Emmons and McCullough refer to gratitude journals as “Counting Blessings.” Perhaps that is a tribute to songwriter Johnson Oatman, Jr., a New Jersey merchant who during his lifetime composed over 5000 songs. Published in 1897, “Count Your Blessings” was Oatman’s most popular work and it reflects the wisdom of modern-day studies. When you are “tempest-tossed,” feeling “discouraged, thinking all is lost,” the lyrics advise, “Count your blessings, name them one by one…”

That is just what what one does in a Gratitude Journal. 

For more information:

3) Gratitude Lists: 

Like Gratitude Journals, Gratitude Lists are a way to become mindful of the people, situations and things for which one should be thankful.

Option A: Several times a week, list three things for which you are grateful and explain why you have made these particular choices.

Option B: Several times a week, list three things that have gone well for you and what you have done to contribute to each of those good things. 

Too often in life, we focus on what has gone wrong; this Gratitude List helps us to shift our focus.

Option C: My Favourite Things—Make a Gratitude List of your “favourite things,” things which give you pleasure and help you to maintain a positive attitude.

Many of us recall the scene in the movie version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical “The Sound of Music” when the governess Maria sings “My Favorite Things” to calm the von Trapp children during a frightening thunderstorm. 

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

These are a few of my favorite things

Maria also notes that her gratitude can cheer her up when bad things happen or when she is feeling sad.

When the dog bites

When the bee stings

When I’m feeling sad

I simply remember my favorite things…

In good story form, Maria’s cheerfulness highlights the benefits of gratitude.

4) Prayers & Psalms

“In everything give thanks,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonica, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Option A:  Writing A Prayer

For people with religious faith—be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other—prayer is a meaningful way to express gratitude. One turns to the immanent or transcendent source of the Sacred and expresses thanks for the rich gifts of life.

  • If you have not written a prayer of thanksgiving before, you may wish to begin by quieting yourself and opening your heart and understanding to all that is holy within or beyond. 
  • Jot down the thoughts that come to you as you think about what you are especially thankful for—your health and well being of body, the personal strengths that you appreciate, the various people who help you, the special relationships that enrich your life, and the meaningful experiences you have enjoyed.
  • Your prayer is a conversation with God, with the Divine—however you understand that greater dimension. But if your prayer is to be shared with other people, use language that is straightforward and understandable. It still can be literary or poetic in form and style, but it should not be overly formal or stilted. 
  • Let your prayer express your gratitude for all that God has done and is doing: for the gift of life; for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being; for relationships; for companionship and compassion; for all that is good, true and beautiful; for present well-being and future anticipations

Option B:  Writing A Psalm

The Psalms of King David, in the Hebrew Bible, provide many examples of thanksgiving (e.g. Ps. 92, Ps. 146-150). If you wish to express your gratitude by writing a Psalm of Thanksgiving, you might follow the guidance of Ray McGinnis. In his book Writing the Sacred, McGinnis describes the features common to psalms of thanksgiving. They include:

  • addressing God
  • praising God
  • mentioning where and how thanks is given to God
  • describing what God has done for individuals and for the community
  • including a list of thanks or recalling the deeds of God
  • inviting others to give thanks to God, and
  • offering a plea to God. 

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.