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Ramping Up Gratitude

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. Meister [Johannes] Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic (1260 – 1328)

A few years ago, I wrote a letter to Dr. Larson who was one of my professors fifty years ago at the University of Tennessee. The letter described a thoughtful, courageous, unrequested act of kindness that he had performed on my behalf. I never thanked him properly. I decided it was time.

Gratitude requires noticing something good we have received from a source outside of ourselves. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism have all endorsed gratitude for hundreds of years.

In the last twenty years gratitude has become a popular area of research and recommended path to the good life. A recent seventy-two page summary of studies links gratitude to almost every positive outcome imaginable.

Want better health? Be more grateful. Stronger relationships? More optimism and resilience? More compassion, patience, humility? Less sadness and anxiety, less materialism, less envy and social comparison? How about a little relief from pain and some more energy? Searching for self-control?

Same answer in every case. Be. More. Grateful.

After reading this summary of positive findings as well as thumbing again through The Gratitude Project (which is a collection of essays and research findings), I dug out my old gratitude journal. I noticed that I had made six entries. Hmmm.

Like keeping a gratitude journal, but slightly different is writing down three good things that happens to you each day. Afterwards, researchers suggest that we write about why they happened.

Both of these practices get at our predicament as human beings. We get habituated to the good in our lives. We take our water, friends, clean air, electricity, roads, homes, friends, and family for granted. We must do something to shake off that unhelpful adaptation.

The gratitude letter is another, powerful way to see the good. We are encouraged to mentally look back and notice those who have helped us, especially those we have never properly thanked. We write the letter and, ideally, read the letter aloud to the person we want to thank.

I have known about this gratitude booster for years, and I have thought a lot about Dr. Larson. I just could not seem to make myself write the letter. It seemed awkward, embarrassing, and I was not persuaded by the older research that writing a letter would really do much for me or for the person I wanted to thank. However, after seeing large effects in later studies, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone.

Just the writing of the letter, being very specific about what was done for me and how it affected my life, seemed to boost my thoughts of gratitude not only for Dr. Larson, but for all those professors and people throughout my life, even those somewhat on the periphery, who had put themselves out for me.

Thinking not only about what others have done, but how they may have gone out of their way to do it, can boost our gratitude for our fellow human beings in general. Yes, unfortunately Dr. Larson had died and I felt sad that I missed an opportunity to talk to him, but I have new resolve to not wait too long to write other letters.

Another gratitude practice has popped up powerfully and naturally for me lately as I have aged. It has a long descriptive name, “mental subtraction of positive people or events.” It is a thought experiment.

You imagine what your life would be like if a specific, positive thing had not happened to you - like meeting a person who became a good friend or a beloved spouse. I find myself in bed many nights feeling deeply grateful for the main man in my life.

What if I had never met him? No children, no in-laws, no grandchildren. It is easy to celebrate and appreciate having him right there beside me for forty-nine years (this month).

It is a normal part of being human to look back on our lives, even our collective history, and see more headwinds (challenges) than tailwinds (blessings), but we can change that by practicing gratitude. If you are ready to jump right in, then dig out that gratitude journal, or write a gratitude letter, or imagine your life without the positive, or try out your own idea.

One new gratitude idea for me this year was to read some of the things people had posted when asked what they were grateful for. It seemed to stir some new appreciation up for me. Here are a few responses:

This has been a difficult year, as my wife has been in a memory facility for over two years now. But despite the heartbreak of this unforgiving condition, I am thankful for what I call the "5% of our marriage," which I hold on to with a vengeance. She is in a safe, caring place, having her needs met better than I could provide. Without any past memories or concept of the future, she still knows me and shakes with excitement when I visit.

I am thankful that even with challenges from Parkinson's Disease, my husband still has a quick wit and tells funny jokes and stories.

I am thankful for a voting system that, despite its fixable flaws, continues to function.

This, in all likelihood, will be my last thanksgiving and I have so much to be thankful for. 22 years ago I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic oral cancer. I was given 3-6 months to live. That was heartbreaking because I had a beautiful 18 month old daughter. After completing 2 years of rather aggressive treatments I got to see my daughter graduate Magna Cum Laud from Scripps College-Claremont. She is everything a dad could ever wish for. Smart, charming, ethical, successful and so loving and attentive to me. We are such close buddies. However, I was recently diagnosed with a Stage IV esophageal cancer which is not treatable. My time is limited, time is sweet and my daughter comes to Bend from LA to visit and care for me for two weeks every two weeks. I am grateful for my life it was filled with love and adventure. Such a full life of mountain climbing, ocean sail boat racing, adventure motorcycling and other adventures approaching insanity. My martial arts practice was a constant reminder that the path of a warrior is filled with heart. I will face my death like a warrior. I am grateful for my 40 years at UCLA dental school and medical school. I loved my students there.

How might we take this month of Thanksgiving to experiment with boosting our gratitude and journey together to The Good Life?

(Please DO take time to list what you are grateful for and feel free to send to me. I will share it with the group if you wish. May your Thanksgiving be full of gratitude. With love and appreciation for your encouragement and support, June).


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