A few years ago Dave, father of five, lost his job and had to take a new one at a significant salary cut. Dave and his wife, Maureen, sold their home at a considerable loss and downsized into a much smaller home. They cut family vacations, name-brand clothing, eating out, and many other things they had previously enjoyed. Looking back on the past several years, however, Maureen is not bitter nor resentful. Instead she is grateful.
“It seems that all the fluff, the extraneous ‘stuff ’ in our lives we thought we couldn’t live without, was simply clouding our view of what was really important,” she says. “Clearing the material clutter stripped us down to our core, our true selves, leaving us space to be grateful for what we value most . . . our family, our good health, and most importantly, our faith that has carried us through.”
Along with ingredients for pumpkin pie and the ubiquitous green bean casserole, make sure your family has what it needs to be grateful this November. Researchers have found that intentionally reflecting on people and circumstances for which we are grateful affects the area of the brain that releases dopamine and serotonin—the chemicals for feeling good.
A study by Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Mike McCollough in the 2003 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants who kept a gratitude journal were 25 percent happier than the control group, who kept a regular journal. Those who recorded people, events, and things for which they were grateful reported fewer health complaints, better sleep, more exercise; they achieved more of their goals and felt more support from family and friends.
Gratitude leads to compassion.
Gratitude for others is tied to compassion. When we feel grateful for our daughter, we are more likely to smile at her, we forgive her missteps, we listen better. The flip side of gratitude is resentment: We find fault with those we resent—we snap, we complain, we gossip.
Brigid, a mother of four who recently lost her job, has found that intentionally focusing on gratitude helps her to be kinder to herself as well. “When I get down about not finding a job and start to feel worthless, counting my blessings has helped me to be more compassionate with myself and more trusting in God’s providence,” she says.
Make it automatic.
While some parents may be uncomfortable with how unnatural the forced “thank yous” of young children seem, most kids need hundreds of reminders to say “thank you” before they start doing so naturally. Parents shouldn’t be afraid that a prompted “thank you” has less value than a spontaneous one—the prompts will lead to the spontaneous, just as parents can eventually let go of the bike and the child rides away without tipping over.
“It’s a slow process, like making sure they drink all their milk at dinner or unconsciously buckle their seat belts in the car,” says Nancy, a mother of a 7- and 10-year-old. “But we’re trying to ingrain in them that it’s an automatic response for anything anyone does for them.”
It’s not all about me.
Capuchin Franciscan Father Mike Bertram, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Milwaukee, notes that an important aspect of gratitude is humility. “One element of gratitude that sometimes escapes us is that it calls us to humility, too. It calls us to be humble that God has blessed us with good fortune, humble that for whatever we are grateful, we have been visited by God,” he says. “We may think that we have been the makers of our good fortune, while humble gratitude brings us to remember that all good things—in us and through us—come from God. It is not of our own making at its deepest roots.”
This article originally appeared in At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications' family spirituality newsletter, in November 2012.