By Joyce Reingold
Gratitude swept into Carol Ann Keller’s life in “full force” in 1993, when she felt she had absolutely nothing to be grateful for.
“Everything was a giant mess, mostly of my own making,” says Keller, a Lantana resident who works in the interior design field. “I had to make extreme life changes in order to change my own life. It was introduced to me that maybe a power greater than myself existed — whatever that looked like, whatever that would be called — and that was very humbling. And once humility started entering into my existence, the gratitude just came up, and I really learned … what gratitude looks like.”
She started with baby steps, acknowledging her good fortune at having a roof over her head and food in the refrigerator — basic but life-sustaining needs. Keller says as her gratitude practice grew, so did her sense of peace and well-being.
While skeptics may regard practicing gratitude as woo-woo, a phalanx of researchers says otherwise. Keller’s experiences mirror findings reported in “The Science of Gratitude,” a 2018 report from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, a locus for research into the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being.
“In general, more-grateful people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, less materialistic, and less likely to suffer from burnout. Additionally, some studies have found that gratitude practices, like keeping a gratitude journal or writing a letter of gratitude, can increase people’s happiness and overall positive mood,” writes author Summer Allen in the report, which documents more than two decades of research. (To read more, visit ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf)
In one cited study, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough define gratitude as having two components: “Recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome and recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” That external source can be a higher power, as it is for Keller, or someone whose actions have bestowed a kindness, or gift.
The important part, experts say, is to get outside of ourselves, acknowledging that navigating life does, indeed, take a village.
Expressing thanks to others directly is another way to practice gratitude. It can come in many forms, such as a letter of thanks. (And you can say thanks to the U.S. Postal Service at the same time by ordering its “Thank You” stamps, just issued in August.)
You might share appreciation in a conversation or as a random act of kindness. The nightly cheering, clapping and pots-and-pans clanging to honor front-line workers during the coronavirus pandemic upped the feel-good ante by giving thanks and building community.
As the pandemic upended life as it was, it prompted many of us to reflect on what we previously may have taken for granted — from lingering with a friend over lattes to visiting far-distant family members or hugging loved ones just across town. With gratitude, surely hindsight counts, too.
Keller says gratitude is helping to sustain her through the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic.
“When everything just kind of blew up, and nothing looked like it ever did before, I had to take myself down a notch to relieve that inner angst, because when I get anxious, it’s usually because I’m trying to control things that are out of my control,” she says. “And so, I go back to gratitude. Gratitude brings me back and I have so much to be grateful for in my life, I really do.”
Michelle Maros, co-founder of Peaceful Mind Peaceful Life in Boca Raton, a nonprofit organization offering mindfulness classes and workshops and other inspiration activities, believes gratitude is especially beneficial during times of crisis.
“Finding things to be grateful for, no matter how small, can allow us to feel a sense of optimism, hope and peace,” she says. “During difficult times, our minds may convince us that everything is going wrong. Gratitude can help shift that mind-set and allow us to remember that there is still so much light in the world, even when it feels dark.”
If you have room in your life to grow your gratitude, the good news is that you already have everything you need. Think about the people, pets, places and things for which you’re grateful. You decide on the where, when and how.
Some jot down their thanks on paper, a couple of nuggets at a time. Keeping a running list builds a storehouse of goodwill that may boost your mood when you review it.
Others, like Keller, make it part of a meditation practice, “an inner journey” that starts and ends her day. “Gratitude keeps me out of the headspace of, oh, why does that person have that, and I don’t?” she says. “It really alleviates any of that because when I’ve been grateful for really small things, bigger things have come along. And I don’t know how that works, I don’t know why that works, but it’s worked.
“My gratitude is increasing by leaps and bounds the older I get. I don’t know. Maybe I’m growing up at 66. Hopefully not,” she says, laughing. “But I’ll still be grateful.”
Joyce Reingold writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.