Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cultivating Gratitude

Sharing this Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends reminds us to put our attention on what we are grateful for in our lives. Cultivating gratitude is a spiritual practice and one that may not come easily in our secular, materialistic world. But from a holistic perspective, learning to be grateful has benefits on many levels. For example, research on gratitude has found that people who express gratefulness have higher vitality, more optimism, suffer less stress, and are less likely to experience clinical depression. Jeffrey Froh, professor at Hofstra University also found that "students who counted blessings were less likely to report headaches, stomach aches, pains in the body."

How do we shift our attitude to one gratitude? According to Robert Emmons, one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude and professor at UC-Davis, keeping a gratitude journal is an important first step. "This process of writing, just putting it on paper, helps people focus, and people report that it helps them to think about things a little differently than they had before," says Emmons. Emmons' research shows that those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and were more optimistic about their lives compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

You can start with a simple list of things that you are grateful for today or this week, and jot them down in a notebook. You may be grateful for the sunny day, a kind word, or a moment of peace and quiet. Acknowledging the simple things can help you refocus from what you may not have, to what you do have. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal may also help people to feel more connected and to be more helpful, according to Psychology Today Magazine.

While the holiday season is a wonderful teaching moment to help our children to understand gratitude, we can help them learn gratitude all year round. Putting loose change into a jar for a charitable cause, bringing our children along to help out with food or clothing donations, or putting our children in charge of special clean up or tree-planting projects are simple yet powerful ways to help them to cultivate gratitude at an early age. Gratitude is best expressed in our actions and how we choose to live. As John F. Kennedy once said, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

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