Thursday, November 17, 2011

Value of Gratitude as a Part of Mental Health

Q. With Thanksgiving coming this week, I was wondering if there is any benefit to gratitude as a part of mental health? 

A. Today's question will be answered by Renay Caroll, counselor in Cullman and Oneonta. Renay has been on our staff since 1997 and has a great deal of counseling experience in a wide variety of areas.  

"It seems gratitude often comes during or after a time of leanness or loss in our lives.  Survivors of the April 27 tornado disaster report gratitude their lives were spared even in the devastation of having lost their homes and property.  Those with illness report gratitude over receiving a good report from testing.  The Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving were grateful for having survived disease and Indian attacks to eat the crops they worked so hard to produce. Many of us will express our gratitude to our soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom in past and current wars.  In my own life, my deepest sense of gratitude has been experienced at the birth of my two children and the homecoming of my soldier husband from Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Gratitude is a mental attitude and kind feeling which teaches us to give and receive affection, help and support.  It teaches us interdependence and reminds us of our connectedness to others; that we need other people and they need us. We give and receive gratitude with others through words of affirmation, gifts and behaviors which express appreciation. By expressing and receiving gratitude, we are acknowledging that we need each other and that we are not an island unto ourselves. 

When we evaluate the value or benefit of gratitude for healthy mental health functioning, we view it on a physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual level. 

Dr. Robert Emmons, UC Davis University of California through his Emmons Lab, notes of gratitude that  “grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.  The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions.  Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.”  (“Measuring the Grateful Disposition,” The Gratitude Questionnaire(GQ-6) Document,  August 10, 2011).
Expressing gratitude can physically, emotionally and mentally benefit us by reducing our stress levels in the body, helping with anxiety management, and controlling of thoughts and emotions.  By focusing on positive thoughts, feelings of gratitude can emerge.  World Book Dictionary defines gratitude as a "kindly feeling because of a favor received; desire to do a favor in return." (World Book Dictionary, Vol 1 A-K,Chicago:  World Book Inc., 1994, p.930).  In Philippians 4:6 in the Holy Bible we are encouraged not to be anxious but rather to pray with thanksgiving or gratitude. 
Healthy social functioning requires a sense of gratitude in our relationship with others. With the unemployment rate hovering at 9%, many people are expressing gratitude to employers for their jobs.  As a country, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to our military soldiers, police and fire fighters for all they have done and continue to do to protect us and the freedoms we enjoy.  The 10th Anniversary 9/11 Memorial Remembrance was a fitting expression of our country's grief and gratitude.  We are grateful for our Founding Fathers and the sacrifices they made to allow this great country to be birthed into existence.
Children need to be taught thankfulness and gratitude in relation to their parents' provision for them.  Otherwise, children grow up with the expectation of privileges given and the belief that society owes them a living.  Through the provision of parents and the teaching of a work ethic, children learn to appreciate their parents' hard work to provide for their needs.  Likewise, they grow to become contributing members of society seeking to 'make the world a better place' for themselves, their families and others.
What marriage relationship would not be vastly improved by more frequent use of the words 'thank you'.  These "words of affirmation" as Gary Chapman refers to in his book The Five LoveLanguages speak a language of love all their own.  Expressing genuine gratitude in the daily interaction of the intimate relationship of marriage can make the difference in a nurturing marriage relationship or one that is declining. Finding creative ways of expressing gratitude in the uniqueness of your marriage relationship allows for individual growth as well as oneness in marriage.
Expressing gratitude to friends and family members can often be done best on those days special to the individual and/or couple.  Who does not appreciate cards and facebook messages on birthdays and special days during the year expressing gratitude for that relationship.  
Gratitude is a quality or characteristic of good character and many religions would promote gratitude as a healthy perspective for approaching life.  In the Christian tradition, the spiritual benefit for expressing gratitude in our relationship to God is found in the Holy Bible in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 where we are encouraged to have joy or "rejoice," to pray constantly giving thanks for everything understanding that to do so is “God's will in Christ Jesus for you."  In the book of Luke, the story of the 1 leper who returned to give God thanks when 9 others were also healed reminds us that most of us neglect to express our gratitude to God.  In Psalm 106:1 we are encouraged to thank God for His goodness and enduring mercy.  Psalm 69:30-31 states that God is pleased when man "magnifies Him with thanksgiving."  From a simple prayer of blessing at meal time to an extended daily prayer time, God desires our acknowledgement that "every good and perfect gift is from above. . ."James 1:17.  The spiritual benefits of gratitude allow us to function in a healthy relationship with God.  Jesus Himself gave thanks to the Father leaving us an example to follow.
Gratitude on its deepest levels is expressed in an awareness that God is the Giver and Sustainer of life.  In times of plenty and in times of loss, gratitude to God is an acknowledgement that the gift of life itself is a gift which comes from God.  On all levels of functioning - physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually - may we practice gratitude so that we may experience its full value in our lives. 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6"

*This column is not intended to substitute for an actual session with a licensed counselor.

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