Gratitude: A Healing Ointment for the Soul
Today I opened a card that expressed thanks for a job I had agreed to do, and that I got paid for. How could such a simple expression, two words – “thank you!”, reverberate through my mind and touch my emotions? When gratitude is expressed, it’s as if pure oxygen is released into our psyche that allows our soul to breathe.
According to one definition from the world of positive psychology, gratitude is defined as a human way of acknowledging the good things in life. A theologian goes on to say that gratitude is “a social emotion that signals our recognition of the things others have done for us. It’s an emotion we feel in response to receiving something good which is undeserved.”
In this global pandemic, much gratitude has been expressed for our first responders – all who continue to work and give and serve regardless of the reality that they are putting themselves in harm’s way. In countless videos and news stories people recount the selfless acts of love given by complete strangers. As these stories wash over the planet, I’ve noticed something profoundly transforming taking place in me personally. The mere expression of heartfelt thanks, whether or not I have been on the receiving end or not, seems to expand my own capacity for connection, love, and well-being. Like the parable of the tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree, expressing gratitude seems to magnify goodness into a healing ointment for the soul.
We can begin to make sense of the dynamic power of gratitude when we look at it from a scientific perspective. According to research, gratitude is not just an action: it is also a positive emotion that serves a biological purpose. The ripple effect of positive emotions creates the conditions for the human heart and mind that are ripe for growing optimism, happiness, empathy, and selflessness. All of this positivity doesn’t stop with just putting us in a good mood. It has psychological and biological benefits as well. These benefits include, but are not limited to; reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression, improved sleep patterns, digestive health, strengthening of interpersonal relationships, better cardiac functioning, and more resilience in managing personal setbacks and negative experiences.
So, it begs the question, with all the proven benefits of gratitude, and the healing power it brings, how can we grow gratitude in our day-to-day lives? Here are three potential strategies:
First, punctuate your day by “hitting the pause button.” Expanding on the evidence-based value of meditation, the focus here is on stopping to breathe and notice all the places where you encounter goodness, generosity, beauty, or unmerited kindness in the unfolding moments of the day. The smile of a child, sound of a song bird, sunshine, good food, or a generative conversation, are all worthy of gratitude.
Second, search your mind for moments of goodness that you have experienced in the past. Sometimes the day you’re living is too dark or difficult to find cause for gratitude. It’s in these times that recalling someone who sacrificed something for our own development, focusing on our own accomplishments, or dwelling on experiences of goodness and joy can rekindle the flame of gratitude in our hearts.
Third, step outside of yourself and love or serve someone else. The reality is, there are many sources of goodness outside of the narrow focus of our own well-being. The decision to be a co-creator of goodness for others opens our hearts and minds to receive the positive endorphins and energy that a natural feeling of thankfulness and connectedness with others.
Ritch Hochstetler, President and CEO at ULEAD