The Healing Power of Gratitude
Ninety-six year old President Russell M. Nelson, prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a cardio-thorasic surgeon for years before he turned his efforts full-time to his religious ministry. As a man of science and religious faith, the prophet suggests a remedy for the spiritual woes and maladies that modern humans face. "There is...a remedy," he says, "one that may seem surprising-because it flies in the face of our natural intuitions. Nevertheless, its effects have been validated by scientists as well as men and women of faith. I am referring to the healing power of gratitude."
Studies suggest that gratitude has many physical and emotional benefits, that the grateful person has better immunity and blood pressure, more ability to forgive, and fewer feelings of loneliness or depression. In one experiment, college students who were experiencing mental health struggles were divided into three groups. All received counseling but the first group was asked to write a letter expressing gratitude to someone else every week over a three week period. The second group was asked to write about their feelings regarding negative experiences. The third group served as a control group and didn't write during the experiment.
The results of this little experiment were dramatic. Subjects of the experiment who wrote the letters of gratitude reported better mental health not only right after the experiment but for months after the experiment ended. This little effort, just taking time to be grateful each day for a few weeks, provided significant benefit to people suffering mental health challenges.
Researchers did more tests, using MRI technology, and learned that merely feeling more grateful affected subjects' brain activity. Grateful people were more likely to want to help a good cause. They also displayed more sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is associated with learning and making decisions. Truly, gratitude appears to be a scientifically sound prescription for mental wellness.
A Religious Principle Gratitude is a religious principle as well as a scientific one. Rabbi Brian Field says that "Judaism is literally built upon gratitude. The original Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi, is a form of the Hebrew word for thank you-todah. In other words, Judaism means 'the path of gratitude." Rabbi Fields says, "Instead of calling ourselves 'the people of the the book,' we more accurately could call ourselves 'the grateful people,' 'the people of the thank you.'" The prayers of the Jewish people often start with "Modeh/Modah Ani," an expression of thanks for the gift of another day. The Psalmist wrote (Psalms 118:24) "This [is] the day [which] the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it." Someone grateful for and rejoicing in the gift of each new day will lead a richer life. A new day is an opportunity, and each individual's life story is written hour by hour, day by day, as the blessings of each day are grasped or missed. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 5:18) "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." In Islam, gratitude is considered to be one of the highly esteemed virtues. The word "Alhamdulillah" roughly means "all praise is for God." It encompasses the idea of gratitude in everyday life. Islam teaches gratitude throughout each day for all the blessings of sleep and water and other basic things granted by Allah. The Quran repeats over and over, "Which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?"
Of course not every mental illness or condition can be solved through gratitude, and those who suffer mental illness or challenges ought not be presumed to be ungrateful. And of course, people of faith can struggle with depression, anxiety, and all varieties of serious mental illness. Those who struggle ought not be judged spiritually lacking. But to be grateful has benefits for the body, mind, and spirit of the mentally healthy and those suffering mentally or spiritually.
A Season of Thanks
Thanksgiving offers a season of giving thanks. This uniquely American holiday is appropriate for those blessed to be born or welcomed into a country of freedom and abundance, a country built on an idea that each individual has worth, each entitled to the exercise of individual rights. America's first congress, led by President George Washington, knelt on bended knee at Saint James's to thank providence for blessing and to dedicate the new nation to God. Immigrants have flocked to American shores since that day, and people of all races and ethnicities have become Americans. Many immigrants have marveled at the stocked shelves in American stores and appreciated being able to acquire easily at corner drug stores drugs unavailable in their home countries. Some have experienced getting a dental filling with Novacaine for the first time. Only five percent of the world's population has ever been on an airplane, but 88% of Americans have been on a flight. Nearly half have traveled by air in a single year. Eighty-eight percent of Americans own cars. Food is so abundant and transportation and labor-saving devices and products so readily available that two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.
Our blessings include beautiful scenery, natural resources, freedom to worship, and to form and raise families. Americans have been free to dream and create. We have been to the moon, unlocked many of nature's secrets, and improved a lot of mankind in much of the world. We have created and explored things of beauty and wonder. A Positive Thought and a Grateful Heart In every life, there are sorrows and disappointments, and the human condition includes the harsh realities of mortality. But every life has meaning and every member of the human family blessings and gifts unique to the individual. The most grateful people I know have not necessarily been the luckiest. Gratitude is an attitude, a way of looking at life and the world and fellow man. We lift one another up in appreciating one another. Who among us is not encouraged and inspired to greater things when we receive a heartfelt compliment? What a gift it is to be appreciated by another. President Nelson challenged his flock of believers to flood social media with messages of gratitude over the week prior to Thanksgiving 2020. As a member of the faith, I have reflected on blessings and written them for friends and family to appreciate. In addition to the benefit of reflecting on my own blessings, I have been uplifted by the expressions of gratitude from friends and family accepting their prophet's challenge. In a year that we joke about needing to reboot, this outpouring of gratitude is a welcome prescription. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Inspirational author Roy T. Bennett stated simply, “Start each day with a positive thought and a grateful heart.”