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Soul Work

The Invitation: How do you sustain an attitude of gratitude?

By Mardi Tindal

A  new “gratitude challenge” is making the rounds on Facebook, and Oprah Winfrey suggests keeping a gratitude journal (write down five things for which you’re grateful, every day!). She promises that if you do so, “the spiritual dimension of your life begins to change.”

Suddenly, gratitude is popular. But popularity doesn’t make it less worthy, and Facebook doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

“Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art,” says Joanna Macy, an eco-philosopher, Buddhist scholar and author from California. “Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create.”

Macy points to First Nations practices of thanksgiving, reminding me that my Aboriginal friends offer the best model of giving thanks to the Creator at every turn: at the start and end of the day; to begin or end a meeting; in tough times and in good ones.

And gratitude, it turns out, is good for you. Researchers at the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center are working on a project entitled “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude.” Early findings indicate that people who consistently practise gratitude show stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, more joy and fewer feelings of isolation. They also act with more generosity and compassion.

The science of gratitude is impressive and varied. You can benefit from keeping a gratitude journal especially if you focus on the people you’re grateful for more than the things; and if you delve more deeply into the details of your gratitude, rather than just making a simple list. Also, with all due respect to Oprah, the science suggests that writing a gratitude journal once a week may be more effective than writing daily.

Research also shows that gratitude may involve a specific set of skills you can practise, such as a list of 10 ways to savour something good in your life. Suggestions include telling a friend about it, pausing to be in the moment and taking a mental picture. Even going through the motions, such as smiling and expressing thanks, can help you to develop a more grateful approach to life. (For more, go to the centre’s website, greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/gratitude.)

These actions may seem simple, but Canadian theologian and activist Mary Jo Leddy suggests that gratitude is the most radical attitude to life. “Gratitude arises in that in-between space where the inner and outer worlds meet and touch and encompass each other,” she writes in her book Radical Gratitude. “Authentic spirituality, genuine politics, and good economics arise from a spirit of radical gratitude.”

Her suggestions include beginning and ending each day with a prayer of gratitude; pausing at mealtimes to give thanks; writing notes of appreciation to public figures whose actions impress you; and gathering in community with “like-spirited people.” She also suggests living more simply as a way of resisting the “culture of dissatisfaction” that comes from material pursuits.

Radical indeed! But I know from experience how much richer life became for me when a distracted driver rammed into our car. The incident forced us to learn that in the city where we live, a car is more burden than benefit. Now, on daily walks, I give thanks for nearby shops and hills that are just challenging enough.

What are your daily acts of gratitude?

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator. 

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