Elaina competed in Speech and Debate this winter and helped her team to it's 24th State Championship! Columbia Falls continues to dominate this academic activity, and I am proud that Elaina opted to participate this year. Her speech is a great reminder to choose an attitude of gratitude, and a beautiful tribute to my mom. I can hardly believe she's been gone two years now. I miss her every day, but am so blessed by the legacy of faithful living she poured out for my daughters. I hope her message will encourage you, despite the struggles of life, to live a grateful life.
Each year at Christmas, my oversized-extended family gathers around the Christmas tree to exchange gifts. It’s not an unusual scene: brightly packaged boxes and the twinkle of the lights.
My mom and dad have insisted, since I was very very young, that I express my gratitude for gifts: saying “thank you” after opening a present and writing a note later on. It’s etiquette and good manners, obviously. And required, even when, for example, at thirteen I got a Mermaid Barbie when what I was really wishing for was Airpods.
But it was that same year, two years ago, when the circumstances of my family made me evaluate gratitude. Real gratitude - the kind that goes beyond good manners and manifests itself in joy regardless of the circumstances.
First, though, before we can practice grateful living, we must define gratitude and then we can begin to unwrap the importance of it in our lives. We will examine why gratitude is so difficult to find, the effects of ungrateful living, and finally determine solutions for incorporating gratitude on a daily basis.
Research shows gratitude isn’t just a pleasant feeling—being grateful can also support greater health and happiness.
Gratitude means thanks and appreciation. It comes from the Latin word gratia. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on Gratitude, explains in his book The Little Book of Gratitude: Create a life of happiness and wellbeing by giving thanks. That “(gratitude is) an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received,” (Emmons). He goes on to say that this “goodness” is not something we offer, but rather “outside of ourselves” and comes to us through other people or even a higher power.
The power of gratitude, however, often eludes us, all of us. At times, most of us struggle to be thankful for the situations in which we find ourselves, much less harness that gratitude to overcome the obstacles in our lives. We lack contentment and feel that life is unfair. Life is hard. And it goes way beyond not getting what we want at Christmas. Gratitude is difficult to find because it is counterintuitive and counterculture. Our culture tells us we get what we deserve, that we are entitled to the good fortune that comes our way. The thing is though, if you are entitled to everything, it’s really hard to be truly grateful for anything.
Despite this, practicing gratitude is one of the most effective ways to change your attitude, increase your resilience- transform your life.
Here’s why. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel 'good'. This jolt of feel-good hormones makes us happy, altering our perspective of any given situation. When these “grateful” neurotransmitters turn on, the stressed out and anxious signals in our brains shut off. And as a result, our mindset changes. Robert Emmons explains,“Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness.” (Emmons)
This makes sense, and science confirms what practical wisdom suggests. Those who are grateful are happier, healthier people. Research by Michael McCullough and Jo-Ann Tsang published in the journal of Personality and Individual Difference found that people who have high levels of gratitude have low levels of resentment and envy, are more connected to their communities, are better liked, and have deeper bonds of friendship with others. In terms of health, The John Templeton Foundation found that grateful people have 10% fewer stress-related illnesses, are more physically fit, and have 12% lower blood pressure. There’s even evidence, including a 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood, that gratitude reduces both the frequency and duration of depression in individuals.
Ok, so being thankful has many interpersonal and health benefits. But does gratitude work in the real world? When things are hard?
I had the opportunity to see how gratitude affects perspective and resilience two years ago when my Nana was diagnosed with Stage 4 T-Cell Lymphoma.
My Nana was the kindest person I’ve ever known. She had just retired, a year early, and finished building her dream home, a little farmhouse within walking distance of her grandchildren, me. But this rare cancer was aggressive- a 7 inch tumor surrounded her hip bones, and it had spread. There wasn’t much hope for remission. She had every right to be angry, bitter, depressed. We all did. It was so unfair. She didn’t deserve cancer.
She fought the disease: bone marrow biopsies, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, radiation, and clinical trials. Spent months in hospitals far away from home. Enduring such pain and heartache might seem impossible, but her smile, through it all, was infectious. Her joy, palpable. She danced and sang. She rejoiced for borrowed time. Was thankful for a good cup of coffee, for beautiful music, pretty pajamas, the love of her friends and family, the care of her doctors, and for opportunities to say goodbye.
She was sad, of course. We all were and are. She didn’t want to die, and we didn’t want her to. But I’m grateful; it’s the most important lesson she gifted me, a present I open day after day.
You might ask: how was she so joyful despite the fact she was fighting a painful, losing battle? What was her secret? Hers was a testimony to her faith in God which helped her to rely on the principle of gratitude to find peace. Simply, she chose to give thanks. “Gratitude is a lifestyle. A hard-fought, grace-infused, biblical lifestyle,” offers inspirational writer Nancy DeMoss Wolgemoth. (29)
You see, my Nana experienced gratitude as a sure path to peace. “Do not be anxious about anything,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “but in every situation by prayer with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” (ESV, Phil. 4.6-7). To put it simply: in every situation … prayer + thanksgiving = peace. This is what my Nana did. And even though it was wrapped in the ugly package of cancer and death, I am so thankful for that gift.
To have this viewpoint, we must make time for gratitude in our daily lives. According to Harvard University, in just 10 weeks people can experience a shift in perspective through intentional grateful thinking. TV guru Oprah Winfrey is a big proponent of keeping a daily record of the things she is grateful for. She says, “Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough.” (“Oprah Winfrey Quotes”)
An attitude of gratitude needs to be cultivated in our hearts and lives.
Speak it out loud.
Write it down.
Make gratitude your default setting.
What are you grateful for today?
Let’s practice this together. Let’s take just ten seconds to think about what we are grateful for right now. Can you just say thanks, in the quiet of your own heart, for one thing today? It can be simple things like a roof over your head or a body that allows you to breathe.
Let’s all close our eyes. Take this time to think about your own life: what are you grateful for?
Quiet. Count to ten with eyes closed.
Open your eyes. Something as simple as what we’ve done together can have a huge impact on your life. The first step towards a gratitude-filled life is taking time each day to focus on those blessings for which we can take no credit. Our health. Our relationships. Our voice.
Today we learned to value gratitude by examining what it is, considering why it is so hard to live a grateful life, the reasons we ought to, and finally we practiced some simple ways to implement gratitude because doing so will result in a life filled with more magical joy and happiness than even Mermaid Barbie could imagine. It’s a gift that truly keeps on giving. I am grateful for our time together today and hope you feel the same. Thank you.
A Emmons, Dr Robert. The Little Book of Gratitude. Octopus, 2016.
Allen Ph.D., Summer. “The Science of Gratitude.” Greater Good Science Center, John Templeton Foundation, May 2018, https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf. Accessed 13 January 2024.
Emmons, Robert. “Why Gratitude Is Good | Greater Good.” Greater Good Science Center, 16 November 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good. Accessed 13 January 2024.
“Oprah Winfrey Quotes.” Brainy Quote, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/oprah_winfrey_163087. Accessed 13 January 2024.
The Bible. English Standard Version.
Wolgemuth, Nancy DeMoss. Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy. Moody Publishers, 2011.