In the early 1990’s, 700 nuns, aged 75 to 102, agreed to share their records as part of a study related to Alzheimer’s. Previously, in 1930, when these nuns were much younger, they were asked to write an autobiographical account of their lives and why they entered the covenant, and these documents, too, became part of this study. Researchers analyzed the data, coding for positive and negative emotions and tested the nun’s state of health annually. When the results were published in 2001, they showed that the more positive emotions the nuns expressed in their autobiographical notes (feelings of contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, hope), the more likely they were to be alive and healthy 60 years later; the difference was up to seven years of life expectancy. This study has since led to the field of gratitude research.
What the nun study discovered was already long entrenched in Judaism, however. Ethics of Our Father (4:1) teaches us, “Who is rich? Those who rejoice in their own portion.” It is traditional to start the day with a prayer called “Modeh Ani” (I am thankful), leading right into Birkot haShachar (morning blessings), which is a listing of many things for which an individual is grateful. The Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei (standing prayer) includes a significant aspect of gratitude and is said by many every day (multiple times a day). Part of the Passover seder (meal) includes a listing of acts by God that “would have been enough” (Dayeinu). Traditionally we aim for 100 blessings each day, thanking God for what He does for us and allows for us to do. Judaism has known for thousands of years the benefits of including gratitude into our daily practice.
And now science knows. Gratitude improves physical health and boosts our immunity. Grateful people take better care of themselves physically, making sure to get to the doctor for regular check-ups and to exercise. Gratitude reduces emotions such as resentment, frustration, and regret, making depression less likely. Gratitude helps people sleep better and enhances self-respect. Grateful people have better relationships, and saying “thank you” elicits better performance from employees.
Recognizing this on some level, the United States has incorporated gratitude into some of its traditions and holidays, including Thanksgiving. The United States was founded by Puritans who were deeply connected to the Hebrew Bible, furthering adding to the importance of gratitude, so deeply infused in Judaism. On October 3, 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, thanking God and emphasizing the blessings: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Gratitude is not something to be saved for one day a year, however. Try some of these ideas as a way of bringing gratitude into the lives of your kids and your family on a more regular basis:
During dinner, go around the table and ask each person to share one thing for which you are grateful.
When your kids make a request (a new toy, going to the amusement park, new shows), ask them to share one thing for which they are grateful before granting any requests.
Engage in a family discussion about the role of gratitude and why it is important that we share our gratitude, including questions such as what are some ways to show gratitude and how can we learn to appreciate ourselves and others more?
Encourage the practice of thank you notes for gifts or practices from others (the mailman, the housekeeper, teachers, etc).
Model gratitude for your children by thanking those around you publicly and sharing with your children why it’s important to you that we express gratitude.
Practicing gratitude as a family has benefits for the peace of the family unit while also benefiting each individual. French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville stated, “Those who are incapable of gratitude live in vain; they can never be satisfied, fulfilled or happy: they do not live, they get ready to live.” Gratitude keeps us humble and reminds us of our dependence on each other and on that which is beyond our control. Gratitude makes us happy. Gratitude helps us truly live.