How a little thank you goes a long way

 

GRATITUDE:The simple act of saying thank you can transform your health, according to scientific studies, and the Irish Hospice Foundation is launching a new project to get us all feeling a little more gratitude, writes ROISIN INGLE

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice”

– Meister Eckhart, theologian and philosopher

LAST NIGHT I SAT down to begin a thank you diary in a small hardback notebook that had been forgotten under a pile of papers on my desk. Feeling slightly self-conscious, I looked back on the day just gone and decided I was thankful for “the smell of the sea”, “my job”, “home”, “Glee” and “parenthood”, not necessarily in that order.

The diary is part of a new gratefulness regime. Every night I plan to take a couple of minutes to count five more blessings or notice five more things that have made that day special. I don’t have time for nightly thank-you marathons and, according to the experts, a couple of minutes every night is all it takes to reap the many benefits of grateful behaviour.

The science of gratitude is only now becoming established, but early academic studies reveal that people who keep thank-you diaries, or gratitude journals as they are known in the United States of Oprah, sleep better, are happier and generally healthier than those who don’t. As it happens, I am not just doing this for the good of my health, although if I get half an hour extra sleep and spend more time with a smile on my face as a result I certainly won’t be complaining.

My main motivation is the fact that I was recently asked to edit a thank you diary in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation, a project inspired by the dozens of American gratitude journals that have been published in recent years.

The Book of Thanksfollows on from a string of successful Hospice fundraising publications, including the Whoseday book and the recent Zest! cook book. It will be left mostly blank to be filled by the daily gratitude notes of those who buy the book, though it will also contain inspiring thank-you messages written by members of the public. Irish and international celebrities including Séamus Heaney, Daniel O’Donnell, Martin Sheen and Lily Allen are also contributing their own handwritten thank you messages to be published in a series of cards, which will also be used to raise funds.

“That day, when you stopped and asked ‘How are you?’. It meant everything. Thank you,” is the message from Christy Moore.

“Thank you for renewing my faith in human kindness,” writes Brendan Gleeson. “For all the little unremembered acts of kindness and of love which I have experienced from you throughout my life, I just want to say thank you,” is the message from Gay Byrne.

The book is designed to complement a wider project being organised by the Irish Hospice Foundation, the first annual Thank You Day to be held on November 25th, the same day as the traditional American thanksgiving holiday. The idea for Thank You Day came from music and theatre producer Bill Hughes, a former board member of the Irish Hospice Foundation. Hughes has celebrated eight of the past 12 Thanksgiving days in the US, and felt it was about time we had our own day for giving thanks.

“What I like about Thanksgiving is that it’s not about gifts, it’s about sharing and catching up on real life with the people who are important in your life,” he says. Gratitude is central to his life philosophy. “I’ve faced financial hardship, illness and loneliness at various points in my life and every time, there was always somebody asking ‘how are you doing?’, which I’ve always been so grateful for. It’s the simplest thing to say thank you and I think it resonates with everybody,” he says.

As part of the project, Sinéad O’Connor has re-recorded a song, Thank You, which was inspired by the break-up of a relationship but was also a thank you to “God, or spirit, or whatever you want to call it,” she says.

“I am lucky that I do have more to be thankful for than not thankful for. I don’t have the struggles or worries a lot of other people do at the moment. I have a roof over my head, and my job. I am lucky that there is nothing really that I feel negatively about in my life any more and I am grateful for all that.”

Designer Steve Averill worked on the last Hospice Foundation fundraising project while his wife Maria was being treated for ovarian cancer. Last November, his wife died shortly before she was due to go into the hospice. “The experience gave me further understanding of the positivity and comfort that the foundation provides, so I am happy to be involved with Thank You Day,” he says.

Averill says he tries to practice gratitude in the most simple and practical ways by saying thank you for everyday services he uses.

“Like saying thank you when getting off a bus, but also in the more profound way to those who have gone out of their way to do something for me or offering thanks to those who have expressed positive words and thoughts to me. They are two simple words that can mean so much.”

Five ways to cultivate gratitude

1 Keep a note of five things you are thankful for each night

2 Recognise life-enhancing moments as they happen and savour them

3 Don’t look too far ahead, value the present

4 Don’t look too far back, be glad to have got to where you are

5 Say thank you more often to more people

By clinical psychologist Marie Murray, author of Living Our Times

And now for the scientific bit . . .

ROBERT EMMONS, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and author of Thanks! How Practising Gratitude Can Make You Happierdescribes gratitude as the “forgotten factor” in happiness research. Religions and philosophies through the ages have long embraced gratitude as a spiritual path, but it is only in recent years that science has started exploring the benefits of being thankful.

Emmons contends that it is impossible to be an “authentically” happy person without being a grateful one, and he says that a life without gratitude can be lonely, depressing and impoverished.

Emmons conducted a study with Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, the results of which were published as Counting Blessings versus Burdens. Two groups of people kept a daily diary: one group recorded five things they were thankful for; the second group were asked to record their daily hassles and irritants. The first group rated higher on a happiness index, and they slept better, exercised more regularly, had less illness, more energy and were more optimistic about their lives.

“When individuals start a daily gratitude journal, they begin to feel a greater sense of connectedness to the world. After a few weeks people who follow this routine feel better about themselves, have more energy and feel more alert,” he says.

It might seem odd, in these days of dole queues, repossessions and doom-laden economic statistics, to be advocating gratitude as a balm to ease life’s toughest challenges. After all, saying thank you is a breeze when the sun is shining, when you can pay your mortgage or rent, when you are able to feed and clothe your children, when you have a job to go to in the morning and someone special to hold on to at night. But when your nights are sleepless and filled with worries about what the next day might bring, thank you are not two words that spring immediately to mind.

But it’s during those times, when life seems grim and hopeless, that an attitude of gratitude can have the most powerful effect. Emmons says that in the midst of “crisis conditions” we have the most to gain from a grateful perspective on life.

“This is where the distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful is important,” he says. “Nobody feels grateful to have lost a job or their home. But is it still possible to have an attitude of gratitude in these situations? I think it is. Not only will a grateful attitude help, but it is essential.”

His own research over more than 10 years has shown that the most grateful individuals have often, from a purely objective level, lived lives filled with loss and suffering. He says they become adept at maintaining a grateful outlook on life as “a fundamentally enduring orientation”. They have an outlook that says no matter what life throws up, they accept that an “underlying goodness” exists and therefore “I will be grateful in spite of circumstances”. In his book he calls this approach “defiant gratitude”.

Even though cultivating what others have called “radical gratitude” in hard times should make the hard knocks easier to deal with, it is even better, he believes, if this outlook has been established in a person’s psyche before the crisis occurs.

“It means that the person will have a built-in psychological immune system to cushion them,” he says. “There is evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress in general, whether we are talking about minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals. A grateful stance toward life is relatively immune to both fortune and misfortune.”

Clinical psychologist Marie Murray, author of Living Our Timesand a columnist for this newspaper, strikes a note of caution concerning the issue of whether people in crisis should be expected to count their blessings. “Perhaps it’s not fair to expect people to practice gratitude at those times . . . unhappiness is not quantifiable and I don’t think we should ask people at times of deep distress to do some mathematical counterbalancing of their misery by counting their blessings,” she says. “But interestingly, it is often at those miserable times that someone emerges unexpectedly to help and support and show people that they are not alone in their suffering.”

The good news for glass half-empty types, or for those not naturally inclined to count their blessings, is that the act of sitting down and mindfully writing out your reasons to be grateful, every night for just one month, the average time it takes to develop a new habit, will be enough to cultivate a new found attitude of gratitude.

Br David Steindl-Rast is a senior member of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York State and the author of gratefulness.org, which is “dedicated to providing education and support for the practice of grateful living as a global ethic”. He says that practising gratitude engenders a crucial awareness of the blessings and gifts of life that we might otherwise take for granted.

“If you live gratefully, recognising the good when you have a cup of tea or a comfortable seat or a nice conversation, then when something difficult comes along, this will not be the first moment when you wake up. Ninety nine per cent of the time we have an opportunity to be grateful for something. We just don’t notice it. We go through our days in a daze.” Perhaps something as simple as The Book of Thankscan wake us up and shake us out of the daze.