The Only Prayer You'll Ever Need
For many, the start of the holiday season can leave them feeling lost, overwhelmed or down at this time of year. Research, and common sense, suggests that one aspect of the Thanksgiving season can actually lift the spirits, and it's built right into the holiday — expressing gratitude.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). Eckhart Tolle says gratitude is simply appreciation--giving attention, or acknowledging something or someone-- “A quiet recognition of another.” In the process of pausing to give attention to someone or something, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves--love, a higher power, nature, the energy that connects us all etc. Opening our frame of reference to include something larger cultivates peace and serenity. It takes us out of ourselves, our stories and our problems, and helps us put things in perspective--a valuable tool this time of year.
So what are some of the scientifically proven benefits of gratitude? Expressing gratitude opens the door to relationships. We all are seeking connection and belonging in this life. A 2014 study published in Emotion found that when we thank a new acquaintance for something, they are more likely to seek an ongoing relationship. So this season, make a point to hold a door open for someone or take a moment to send a quick thank you text.
Gratitude also improves physical health, which, in turn, informs our sense of well-being. A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences
found that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than others. They are also more likely to take care of their health. They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular check-ups with their doctors-- which creates a self-perpetuating cycle of good health!
Gratitude also contributes to good psychological health. Multiple studies have shown that gratitude reduces envy, resentment, frustration, and regret. It increases happiness and reduces depression. Researchers conducted a very interesting study to measure how practicing gratitude affects people seeking counseling for mental health issues. (2017 Joel Wong and Joshua Brown) There were 300 participants at a mental health center who were divided into 3 groups. One group wrote gratitude letters to one person every week, while a second group did no writing. The third group was encouraged to journal on the struggles and negative emotions they were feeling. The participants were then studied, interviewed and their brain activity was observed in an MRI machine. The part of the brain that has to do with gratitude is the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. It took a few weeks of the gratitude practice to see results, but those who wrote the gratitude letters, showed more brain activity and had marked improvements in their mental health indicators. Interestingly, these improvements were present whether letters were delivered or not! So as lovely as it is to express gratitude, it is nice to know that simply by contemplating what we are grateful for, we can improve our mental health.
I think one of the reasons for gratitude’s positive effect on our mental health is that it is a gateway to presence. One of the concepts that seems to come up over and over again in so many spiritual traditions is “being in the moment.” In the moment, there is no worry, no regret, no monkey-mind. In this moment, nothing is lacking. But sometimes it is so hard to get there! Our culture has so many distractions and we have been programmed to accomplish things and multi-task! One sure-fire way to get back into the moment is to be grateful! (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now) It is impossible to experience gratitude and be anywhere but the moment. What a powerful tool this is!
Gratitude has also been shown to enhance empathy and reduce aggression. Grateful people are pro-social even when others are unkind, less likely to get defensive when given negative feedback, have more sensitivity and empathy, and are less likely to seek revenge. (2012 study at University of Kentucky) Maybe this is because grateful people sleep better! If you want to improve your sleep, just write in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes before bed. (2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.) Grateful people also have better self esteem. This was studied in the area of sport psychology, where gratitude reduced social comparisons and athletes were able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.
Grateful people are also more resilient. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11.
But how can we access gratitude even in the difficult times? I highly recommend a Ted talk by a Benedictine monk named David Steindl-Rast, entitled “Want to be happy? Be grateful.” He explains that what we all have in common is our desire to be happy. But happiness cannot depend on outside circumstances, it must arise from within. The best way to access the happiness within is to be grateful. Gratitude does not arise out of happiness… but rather, happiness arises out of gratitude.
My favorite part of the talk is how he addresses finding gratitude in each moment, even in the difficult ones. He says that each and every moment contains opportunity. And it is for this opportunity that we can be grateful. It may be the opportunity to learn something, to feel something deeply, to empathize with another. This way of looking at things has really affected how I perceive events in my day. Annoyed in a long line? It’s an opportunity to meet a stranger. On the phone with apple support for an hour? It’s an opportunity to problem solve with another, and to knit and drink coffee while I do it! Having a conflict with a loved one? It is an opportunity to practice listening, boundary setting, and creative problem solving. With practice, we might get so used to being grateful for these opportunities, that we welcome them!
I titled this article “The Only Prayer You’ll Ever Need” because of a quote by Meister Eckhart. “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” But if I was going to adopt a second prayer of gratitude, it might be by cartoonist Leunig, because it so beautifully encapsulates the idea that we can find gratitude for the opportunities contained in all kinds of moments, even the ones we don’t expect.
“God, give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God, play with us, turn us sideways and around.”
I love all the gratitude practices that people adopt around the month of November. This year, I have been experimenting with a new one. In the hard moments, when I am resisting what is, or I am triggered, or worried, I have been pausing and uttering to myself (or out-loud if no one’s around) “Thank You”. Sometimes it is through gritted teeth, but I must admit that I notice an immediate shift in my body and my outlook. My external circumstances don’t change in that moment, but with those two words, I become a willing participant in the events of my own life. I highly recommend it!
Finally, an added benefit of gratitude is that it creates abundance. Ekhart Tolle points out that appreciating the little things in your life, creates a receptive state of consciousness to bring more good things to you. The more grateful you are, the more connected to source, and then you realize that you ARE source, and that rather than having the power, you are the power! So when you are being grateful to source energy, you are being grateful to yourself! What we put into the world spreads and multiplies, so this good energy is contagious!
Jen Sincero, among many other popular motivational writers, talks about being grateful for what you want even before you get it. “By generating that gratitude for the not-yet manifested, it informs the universe that you know that what you desire already exists, and it puts you in the right frequency to receive it! If you trade in your drama about how you can’t have what you want for the grateful expectation that miracles will walk into your life, then the more commonplace those miracles will become!” I do not view this as a tit-for-tat exchange. It’s not to be used as a tool to manipulate and control outcomes, or to acquire what we think will make us happy. In my mind, it must be paired with acceptance, and with a faith that our path is unfolding as it should.
We only need to look back on our lives to see that even though we don’t understand at the time, everything happens to seed our evolution and growth. Sometimes losses we would not choose, make way for things we couldn’t have expected! But “like energy” does attract “like energy,” so if we start walking around being grateful for our present moment, and grateful in advance for our future, it only makes sense that we will have more things to be grateful for. Actually, it really won’t matter as much what we get or what we have, because we’ll be so busy seeing the good. “Thank you” -- the only prayer you'll ever need.
(For further reading, check out the “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude,” in Psychology Today, by Amy Morin, April 3, 2015. “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier” in Harvard Health Publishing, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. Wallace Wattles, “The Science of Getting Rich” and Jen Sincero “You Are A Badass.” Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works)