Like many parents, instilling gratitude was among my early teaching moments. When one of my children was receiving an offering of some sort, I piped in with, “Don’t forget to say thank you!” And then repeated myself again and again and again until that recognition of gratitude became ingrained, and my child would repeat the two words himself.
Grown ups need reminders sometimes too. World Gratitude Day, celebrated each year on September 21, does just that. It cues us to acknowledge those things in our lives, large and small, for which we are grateful. This day of international reflection began in Hawaii in 1965 and was recognized by the United Nations Meditation Group beginning in 1977. At its best it can lead to a daily practice of reflecting on those positive things we have in our lives.
Gratitude is part etiquette, part kindness, part spiritual growth. Many believe that it leads to an increase in happiness. Psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons, considered by some the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, is one of those people. The practice of gratitude can increase happiness by 25%, according to Emmons. Studies have shown that grateful people reap many benefits. They tend to have more energy, are more resilient, and accomplish more. They are less likely to be depressed or lonely.
That is not to say that gratitude inoculates us from hard times. But rather it enables us to resist despair when those hard times inevitably occur. “Under crisis conditions, we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.” Emmons says that gratitude is a choice, an attitude that endures through good and bad.
It’s not just emotional health that improves but also physical health. The Journal of Health Psychology reported that grateful people eat 25% fewer fatty foods and have better blood pressure readings than ungrateful people. Emmons, along with Dr. Michael McCullough, completed a study in 2003 in which they prompted people to list five sources of gratitude several times a week. The researchers reported an upward swing in their moods. The practice also resulted in the commitment of more time to exercise.
Helping others was yet another byproduct that Emmons and McCullough discovered in their study. It was this human connectedness and empathy that famous author Ann Patchett and her friend Elissa Kim experienced. During a trip to India, Kim witnessed extreme poverty and felt guilt for her comparative wealth. Later, Kim embarked on another journey of sorts to live without material items that she had previously taken for granted. In 2017, Patchett joined in and spent an entire year shopping free. She allowed herself to buy small personal items that she might need along with groceries but no clothes, jewelry, bags, shoes or other luxury items. Both women acknowledge a shift in their attitudes towards consumerism, a realization of how much they had and didn’t necessarily need. It seems that they experienced a new sense of gratitude.
Similarly, it was Felicia McKenzie’s trip to Tanzania in 2013 that six months later led to the creation of Brighter Tanzania Foundation and Saving Grace School. McKenzie, founder and executive director of BTF, worked as a volunteer teacher for three weeks in Tanzania. Her gratitude for this opportunity led her to reflect on the role of volunteers in Arusha. She realized that her own plane fare was equivalent to a year’s salary for a teacher in Tanzania. It is the reason that part of the mission of BTF is to support the local economy of Arusha and employ only Tanzanian residents.
As the original founders of World Gratitude Day realized, growing a grateful heart can lead to small changes such as a shift in an individual’s outlook and groundswells such as Saving Grace School.