We know we should be grateful.
Since ancient times, spiritual leaders and philosophers have expounded on the importance of giving thanks.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others,” wrote Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman philosopher and statesman who lived more than 2,000 years ago.
“In everything, give thanks,” the Apostle Paul told one of the early Christian churches.
In recent decades, scientific research has documented the beneficial aspects of gratitude. Being thankful speeds up physical healing, improves mood and critical thinking skills and helps create lasting relationships.
The case for gratitude is “pretty darn compelling from science now,” said Shann Ray Ferch, a psychologist and writer who teaches leadership studies at Gonzaga University.
Positive psychology, which has emerged in the past 50 years, studies the strengths that allow individuals and communities to thrive. Gratitude is recognized as one of those strengths, Ferch said.
But what exactly is gratitude? How do we practice it on a daily basis, and does it really make a difference in our lives?
For Ferch, gratitude doesn’t ignore dark or difficult times, but occurs in the midst of them.
Gratitude shouldn’t be based on comparison, added Edie Rice-Sauer, executive director of Transitions, a Spokane nonprofit that helps homeless women and children.
Being grateful that your situation is better than someone else’s can lead to feelings of superiority, or ingratitude when you perceive your situation as worse than others, she said.
Today, four Inland Northwest residents share their thoughts on gratitude.
Gratitude recognizes the kindness of others in our lives, they said. It allows for forgiveness. It includes words and action. It brings joy.
Thubten Chonyi’s day begins in darkness and quiet. Each morning, the Buddhist nun rises at 5:30 to meditate.
She’s a member of Sravasti Abbey near Newport, Washington, which follows a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Compassion for all living beings is one of the primary tenets.
To develop compassion, Chonyi practices a form of gratitude. She meditates on the kindness of others.
During her meditation, Chonyi reflects first on the kindness of parents and family members, then on the kindness of friends and teachers, and finally on the kindness of strangers.
“It’s systematically recognizing the kindness of others and how much kindness we’ve received in our lives,” she said. “Because that’s not where we put the emphasis.”
We’re quicker to remember when we felt hurt or abandoned, Chonyi said.
“But then we sit down and think about how much we were nurtured. Somebody fed us. Somebody got us to school. Somebody taught us to read. Someone taught us the skills to make a living.
“If we measure the pain or harm, even terrible things that have happened to us, which have you had more of in your life? It’s kindness,” she said.
The power of meditating on kindness first struck Chonyi during a three-month retreat. Day after day, the meditation reshaped her childhood memories and changed her relationship with her family, particularly her mother.
During a difficult childhood, Chonyi’s mother sometimes left her with her grandparents or great-grandparents. During her meditations, Chonyi, now 63, came to appreciate that her mother placed her with other caring adults when she couldn’t care for Chonyi herself.
Seeing her mother in that light was “profoundly healing,” she said. When her mother was dying, “it set the foundation for me to be with her.”
Chonyi also finds it powerful to meditate on the kindness of strangers. If she’s eating a slice of cheese, she might meditate on the cow that gave the milk, and the people involved in making, packaging and shipping the cheese.
“This broadens your mind,” she said. “Even the guy whose political views I might think are so awful may have been the one who drove the truck here that brought the food to this very place. So regardless of where we might stand with our opinions, the effort of that human being serves me.”
For Ferch, the Gonzaga professor, one fascinating study on gratitude shows a link to better critical thinking skills.
“Gratitude, literally, neurologically opens the mind to better ways of problem solving. It makes sense when you think about it,” he said. “When our lives are filled with frustration, or when we feel flooded with negative emotions, we tend to feel like there’s no way out, or no good answer.”
But when people have higher levels of gratitude, their problem-solving improves, he said. So do their relationships.
In his work as a psychologist, Ferch also sees strong links between gratitude and forgiveness. It shows up in how couples relate to each other.
“When couples aren’t relating well, they tend to descend on the gratitude scale,” he said.
The scale measures things like tone of voice, eye contact and types of touch. But when couples express high levels of gratitude for each other, their relationships are more forgiving and more resilient.
“If you are in a relationship that can handle conflict with grace and ease rather than fracture, you’re in a much better relationship,” Ferch said. “Those relationships are positioned around gratitude.”
Gratitude seems to come easily for some people, he said. For others, it’s a life’s work.
Father Jim Kuhns, a semi-retired Catholic priest, ends each day with a prayer of gratitude. He includes small and routine things he’s thankful for.
“It might include being struck by the sunlight when I get up. For the food I eat, for shelter I have, for the kind words of others. Maybe for a phone call from a friend,” said Kuhns, an 81-year-old Spokane resident.
People and nature figure prominently in his prayers. His faith teaches him that God is the source of every good gift.
“His gifts come primarily through people, and sometimes through nature,” Kuhns said.
Part of Kuhns’ awareness of gratitude dates to a Christmas in the late 1940s when he got an ugly sweater from a great-aunt. It wasn’t the kind of gift a 12-year-old boy appreciated.
“The sweater was orange and green striped. It looked like a prison uniform,” Kuhns said. “After I wrote her a thank you note, I buried the sweater in the bottom of the lowest of my dresser drawers.”
A few months later, the great-aunt came to visit from out of state. Kuhns’ dad told him to get out the sweater and wear it. When he complained, his dad said, “Using the gifts you’ve been given is a form of gratitude.”
“That stuck with me and became part of my outlook,” he said.
It helps him express gratitude in action as well as words, Kuhns said. He still fills in as a priest when needed, and he volunteers at the House of Charity, which serves people in need of food, clothing and shelter.
“The prayer of thankfulness helps me to see the goodness of people,” Kuhns said. And, “it helps me be a little more aware of people in need, so I can help them.”
Living in the moment is one of the ways Rice-Sauer practices gratitude.
“I call it ‘being in the now,’ ” the Transitions director said. “Not in the future, or in the past. I find that I notice things more. My children. My garden. A beautiful sunrise.”
Rice-Sauer, 60, is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Earlier this year, a minister friend encouraged her to start a “gratitude jar.” Each day she tries to write down something she’s thankful for and place it in the jar.
Rice-Sauer noticed her practice of gratitude slipping when she was taking care of her husband after his back surgery. During the stress and busyness of being a caregiver, she was less consistent at being thankful.
The experience gave her insight into the lives of her clients, who are dealing with serious crises. It’s hard to live in the moment when you’re worried about being evicted or not having money for a bus pass or car repairs, she said.
At the end of the year, Rice-Sauer plans to empty her gratitude jar and reread what she had written. She plans to make a ritual of filling a gratitude jar each year. “I think it will show some interesting things,” she said.
While others link gratitude to forgiveness, Rice-Sauer ties it to joy.
“I think of it as waking up,” she said. “When I am paying attention, I am filled with joy.”
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