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Grateful for gratitude

With Spring in the air,  it is becoming easier to focus on gratitude.  Spring in Adams County is something to behold! Gratitude, you see,  is good for my mental health.  It’s good for my shattered soul, and it’s keeping me physically healthy. 

The Psalms, one of the most popular books of all time, is filled with anthems and hymns of praise.  Even when the Psalmist begins with words of complaint, suffering, and woe, words of praise inevitably reshape the psalmist’s mood. There’s a reason for that.  If we focus on what’s wrong, that’s all we will see.  If we practice gratitude, life opens like a flower.  The book of Hebrews speaks of making the sacrifice of praise, for when we make a sacrifice, we give up something we value for something of even greater value.  When we praise God, we see God in everything we do.  When we forgive, sacrificing our right to feel resentful and holding a grudge, we are freed from the burden of hate and resentment.

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Scientists have been studying the efficacy of gratitude using controlled studies in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Each study finds that the consistent and intentional practice of gratitude actually changes brain chemistry as effectively as medication, if not more so.   So why don’t more mental health practitioners advocate the practice of gratitude?  Well, for one thing, prescribing medication is easier and less time-consuming.    Drugs allow us to be lazy and not do the challenging mental work of changing our thinking.   Besides, drugs generate big profits.

Gratitude, while free, requires effort. Lots of effort.  It is not as easy as taking a pill.  It takes longer to experience relief.   In addition, it can require an almost superhuman effort when one is clinically depressed and deeply discouraged.  Fortunately, some clinicians are now combining medication with the practice of gratitude, as the rewards for being grateful are manifold.  Besides, there are no known negative side effects.  Gratitude won’t make one fat, sluggish,  or flatten their emotions.  In the end,  gratitude, if continually practiced,  helps one make better decisions, work through problems, and contribute to overall feelings of well-being.

Scientific studies suggest the quickest and most effective way to practice gratitude is by keeping a gratitude journal.  In several studies, participants were asked to write at least three things every morning and every evening for which they are grateful.  After writing their gratitude list,  they were to read the words out loud, listening carefully to what they were saying, preferably repeating them several times.  The reason for this is that the process of writing, speaking, listening, and seeing involves multiple senses, thus making a greater imprint on the brain. Those being treated with gratitude were cautioned not to feel discouraged if they didn’t feel any difference for weeks.  Negativity is a habit that alters one’s brain chemistry, but the same is true for gratitude.. Consequently, it takes time to develop the habit of being grateful.

It’s only since I’ve begun practicing gratitude that I’ve come to understand the importance of praising God in all things.   After all, what is praising God but being grateful?   What I’ve been learning since my husband’s death and our nation has become so divided is that I can be both grateful and sad at the same time, but what a joy to feel rather than being numbed by grief.  To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “These three things remain, sadness, loneliness, and gratitude, but the greatest of these is gratitude.”

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