How to cultivate gratitude?


Years ago, a friend’s mother who was visiting Alaska came to our house. Besides my friend, she had another grown child and it was apparent that neither of them was ever going to produce offspring. Despite her ripening age, she would never be a grandma.

Central casting could have chosen her to play a gentle old Irish nanna. She took an immediate interest in my 3-year-old, and by late afternoon she was on a first name basis with my daughter’s stuffed animals.

I felt a little sad that she’d never have her own grandchildren, but the encounter gave me an insight into the virtue of gratitude.

At that time, my child was my mother’s only grandchild, and I often felt guilty that we lived far apart. Guilt is an enemy of gratitude. My mom was thrilled with her grandchild, wrote and called often and visited when she could. We spent many fun summer days in mom’s little hometown.

Should I spend my time regretting the distance between us, or give thanks for the gift my daughter was to my mother? My friend’s mother would have been thrilled to make the long trek north to visit a grandchild. To have a grandchild in Alaska, or no grandchild at all? That’s a no-brainer.

It’s that old cliché: You can complain that rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.

Or this, from the philosopher Cicero: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

During Lent, we have much to ponder about gratitude. As Catholics, we believe everything starts with God and everything should be returned to God in gratitude. The older we get, we come to know that our lives and our well-laid plans are not our own.

All those negative impulses — greed, guilt, envy, anger when we don’t get what we want, a false self-image we burnish — could be subsumed by a deeper gratitude to Jesus, who lived and died among us out of love.

Another no-brainer: to live in a sense of disappointment and guilt, or to rejoice that God loves me just as I am?

In the last few years, gratitude has been explored extensively by the scientific community as a key to mental health. Catching a snippet about this on the evening news, I googled the subject and discovered that scientists from Harvard to Berkeley are delving into the mental health aspects of gratitude.

One report in a Harvard magazine even stated what’s obvious to a Christian: “People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.”

A report in Forbes listed several studies since 2000 that point to increased happiness derived from gratitude. Grateful people sleep better and have better marriages, enhanced empathy, improved physical health and self-esteem.

How to cultivate gratitude? One study used a gratitude journal, with subjects spending 15 minutes at bedtime noting things for which they were grateful. Several weeks of this resulted in better sleep and a better attitude.

Again, a Catholic might use their nighttime prayers. Gratitude should be explored on a daily basis but it is shallow without God.

My Lenten resolution is a gratitude journal, written at bedtime. Jesus, in whose life and passion we immerse ourselves during this penitential season, wants us to be fully alive and healthy. And I’m grateful for that.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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