Friday, August 22, 2008

The Transformative Power of Gratitude

First a person should put his house together, then his town, then the world.
Simple practices can reconnect us with the flow of life.

My life was humming along last year when the universe delivered back-to-back wake-up calls. First, I lost my job when the magazine I edited went belly-up. A month later, my father landed in the intensive care unit. It felt as though life were peeling my layers, like a tree being stripped of bark.

Not knowing what else to do, I drove down to my parents' house. Their vulnerability terrified me. I visited my father at the hospital every day, trying to hold back tears as I stood awkwardly by his bed and stroked his thick white hair. At home, I cooked, answered the phone, and washed the dishes. One afternoon, I held my mother's hand as she wept. Its warmth and softness, its aliveness, astonished me. And that's when the most unexpected thought welled up from some fresh chink in my heart: I am so blessed to be here right now.

Suddenly, I felt lucky to have the time to be with my parents, to witness them, which I wouldn't have been able to do if I hadn't lost my job. Now, I had all the time there was.

I felt even more grateful for this gift of time when my father returned home. Grateful for the smallest things: poring over seed catalogues together, watching sitcoms with him, listening to his breathing while he slept in his recliner. Grateful for the cold wind on my face as I cross the supermarket parking lot on an errand for my parents. Grateful for my brother's love and care, for my mother's humanity, for the moon climbing the maple trees outside my old bedroom window.

Looking back, I never would have chosen the crises of my father's illness and losing work I loved. But my parents' vulnerability—and my own—frighten me less these days. Gratitude opened the gates of tenderness—right in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

Since then, I've started making a conscious effort to practice gratitude in some small way every day. When I do, I feel much more connected with the flow of life, instead of isolated and alone in my own struggles and fears.

Gratitude can be a powerfully transformative practice. Psychologists Robert Emmons of U.C. Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have found that practicing gratitude can actually improve our emotional and physical well-being. Their ongoing Research Project on

Gratitude and Thankfulness has found that people who keep weekly gratitude journals had fewer physical symptoms, exercised more, had a better outlook on life and were more likely to reach their goals. People with neuromuscular disease who practiced daily gratitude "had more high-energy positive moods," felt more connected to others, and felt more positive about life in comparison to a control group.

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