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Being grateful for gratitude

November 23, 2016 GMT

Happy Gratitude Day!

The word “thanksgiving” is listed a synonym for gratitude in my thesaurus. After reading many wonderful articles about the positive power of feeling grateful, and how it makes a difference in our lives, I appreciate that our country designates one day a year as a holiday to celebrate it. It also inspired the title. Sincere gratitude is truly a “feel better” pill for anyone who chooses to swallow it.

Article after article mentioned how scientists have measured how people were positively affected by thinking grateful thoughts. It helps us at many levels. Let’s start with the seven listed by Amy Morin on a “Psychology Today” website. She begins by stating that “mentally strong people choose to exchange self-pity for gratitude.” Then the seven scientifically proven benefits are listed:

1. “Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. The study found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship.” Even thanking a stranger for holding the door for you or sending a thank-you note to someone who helped you with a project can help.

2. “Gratitude improves physical health. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than others. They are also more likely to take care of their health.”

3. “Gratitude improves psychological health.” It reduces a multitude of toxic emotions from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert Emmons’ research confirms that “gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.”

4. “Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a positive and friendly manner, even when others are less kind to them.” If you are aware of how many things you are grateful for, you can let some go when life doesn’t go your way. They had more sensitivity and empathy towards others and were less likely to seek revenge. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It is one of the tasks that children learn that makes them mature adults. If we don’t feel satisfied with ourselves or our lives, it becomes harder to care about others.

5. “Grateful people sleep better.” This was based on a study of people who “who spent about 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed.”

6. “Gratitude improves self-esteem. A study in the 2014 Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. Another study showed that gratitude reduces social comparisons.” Comparisons are a trap! We compare something that is a stand-out characteristic of someone else with our own. So perhaps someone at the gym can do a crazy routine perfectly. We don’t know their lives. Are they working a job and raising a family, too? Do yourself a favor and stop making comparisons. We’ll never know the history or the whole picture that motivates someone to do what they do.

7. “Gratitude increases mental strength. Not only does it reduce stress but “it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. 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 Sept. 11.

So gratitude strengthens our bodies and minds, makes us feel better, and can help us attract friends. Those are significant changes. It’s definitely worth spending some time each day being grateful.

But what if we’ve hit an emotional dark hole? Perhaps a loved one has recently left us in one form or another. Or we were just given a “fatal” diagnosis. (In quotation marks because I’ve read of too many “fatal” diagnoses that never happened.) We were assaulted or robbed, etc.

It may help to feel the feelings that come up safely. Don’t pretend you feel OK. Just cry if you want to. We don’t hurt others or ourselves. Get angry. Shout (but be careful not to scare anyone!) In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Life Death and Transition workshop we all had a chance to vent the pent-up emotions from past traumas or stress-producing situations. A therapist sat with each of us, one at a time on the floor, on a single mattress. We were given gloves, a phonebook, and about a 16” piece of rubber hose. We had to tell the story. Some people cried or got angry at things that happened to them, others for things they did to others, and were pained about.

If we got angry we could swat the mattress with the hose, or tear the phone book up into zillions of pieces while telling the person who hurt us how they hurt us and why. We were allowed to swear. It was important to let everything go. Then we said what we needed from them. Finally we were told to look around at all the other participants who had held a loving space for us to release. The therapist said something like, “Do you think any less of her for releasing this negative energy?” We never did. We were happy that they got it out.

And honestly, we saw faces change. Frown lines formed from furrowed brows, or downturned eyes and mouths used to sadness seemed to lessen. The body no longer had to hold the negative emotion. We all felt a bit light-headed. Scientists discovered that brain creates hormones that balance our bodies. We know that people often self-medicate when they have negative feelings. It is my experience that there is a clean high when I’ve dumped the stuff I don’t want to carry any more. Try releasing first.

So perhaps letting go might help. Release the past. Now, in the present moment you are breathing. You can think, feel, imagine, love, speak, sing. Wow! That’s a great start on a gratitude list.

Remember the song from “The Sound of Music” about how when Maria was frightened she’d think of her favorite things. It’s helpful if we have things in our lives that we can fall back on. Recently I seem to be hearing stories about how the sky is falling because of the change in administrations. My faith holds that all will be well. But I have friends who are visibly shaken by what might happen to them or their loved ones. I am empathetic to their anxiety. I’m not used to feeling that. Prayer helped me. But I also decided to practice gratitude, as that keeps the mind focused on the good parts of the Earth, and I wanted fresh data for this column.

I started thinking of how grateful I am for flowers. I love flowers! It became a sensual treat! I love the velvety petals, the fuzzy or slick feel to leaves, the intoxicating aromas, the incredible colors, the soft little white roots that grow around all kinds of obstacles to do their job for the plant. I admire their persistence in growing even under adverse conditions etc. Before I knew it, 15 minutes was up and I felt better, and I had only thought about flowers and plants.

Another benefit of gratitude is that after we do it, the mind somewhat continues the exercise and looks for the good things in the world to be grateful for, which continues to produce the seven above mentioned results.

Want some starters? Google gratitude images. Do something special for someone and feel their gratitude. Gratitude is contagious.

I very sincerely hope that you will truly feel gratitude, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day. And remember the One who made us all, no matter what name choose. Our Source will get it.

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Hale ‘Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kaua’ community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at aatkinson@haleopio.org For more information about Hale ’Opio Kaua’i, please go to www.haleopio.org