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“If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.”
– Harold Kushner

Feelings of gratitude flood my being as I sit here writing. That I am able to write is something I am deeply grateful for. The computer I write with, the notebooks I can purchase, the pens I buy. The internet that allows me to push a button and put my words out there. The health and strength I am blessed with. My family, my muse Lulu, my home, my livelihood, living in peace and plenty. There is so much to be grateful for, my cup runneth over.

Does being grateful make a difference in our lives? A study published by the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley tells us that 300 college students seeking mental health counseling at one university were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

The first group was required to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. The second group wrote down their negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The third group did not engage in any writing activity.

The results: The first group reported significantly improved mental health, lowering of depression and anxiety at the four week mark as well as 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended.

Researchers dug deeper using an MRI scanner they found the brain activity of the gratitude versus negative writing groups differed. Three months after the writing activities the grateful group showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area in the brain associated with learning and decision making. This indicates that simply by expressing gratitude we may have a lasting effect on our brain. Shifting our thoughts away from toxic emotions improves our well being.

“Thank you” is the essence of nonviolence. It contains respect for the other person, humility and a profound affirmation of life. It possesses a positive, upbeat optimism. It has strength. A person who can sincerely say thank you has a healthy, vital spirit; and each time we say it our hearts sparkle and our life force rises up powerfully from the depths of our being. (April 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 16)

Does this make some people feel worse or better? Are we more in control of our life than we think we are? This information comes to us wrapped in new wrapping from time to time. It is part of all religious traditions.

“There’s something called a grateful personality that some psychologists have studied,” said Jo-Ann Tsang, a psychologist at Baylor University. “They find that if you’re greater in the grateful personality, you tend to have increased life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, hope, positive emotion, and … less anxiety and depression.”

Can we uncouple gratitude from religion?

Robert Emmons a psychologist at the University of California says. Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.

“You see—none of this have I framed in a religious context or using religious/spiritual language,” he concluded.

Michael McCullough a psychologist at the University of Miami thinks there’s another reason for the ubiquity of gratitude: It’s an evolutionarily beneficial trait, hardwired into the human brain.

“Even things that are culturally constructed have to have a home somewhere up in the mind to come out in our thoughts and our behavior,” he said. “Like all emotions, [gratitude] was plausibly designed by natural selection. There’s some tissue up in the head whose job it is to produce gratitude.”

The evolutionary explanation for this, he said, is probably that gratitude helps people initiate friendships and alliances—which then help people survive.

His research suggests that when people do nice things for others unexpectedly, that produces gratitude—and increases the likelihood that people will do something “in kind” (“a really rich phrase, when you think about it,” he added). Although scientists can’t know the exact neurological nature of gratitude, they look at behaviors like these as a proxy for understanding why people feel certain emotions, like thankfulness.

Wow, all we thought we were doing is saying “thank you.” According to these experts we are changing our brain. If we practice gratitude in our lives we make our life better regardless of whether we see gratitude as a religious practice or merely a way of being. It seems gratitude is the choice we should all make. It costs us nothing to be grateful, pays huge dividends, eases our relationships with other people and improves our brain.

Is there a difference between feeling grateful and gratitude?

“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”
– Henri Frederic Amiel

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GRATITUDE/TRADE (Hay) Paperback – October 1, 1996