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Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com blogger, Published November 27 2013

Positively Beautiful: Gratitude can help us during difficult times

Thanksgiving Day ... There is much to be grateful for: turkey with my favorite stuffing, smooth gravy, mashed potatoes, and between my in-laws and my family, I get to select from six different kinds of pie!

My dad is renowned for his pecan and cherry pies. My mother-in-law’s sour cream and raisin pie is just as famous. I treasure good health, rich relationships with family and friends, meaningful work, and some time for fun. It’s easy to celebrate when life is good.

But we all know troubles, failures, sadness, loss and even disaster. Some of us know deep tragedy on a personal level. No one in their right mind can be grateful for the bad things that befall us. No amount of positive thinking can banish all suffering.

But the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe put us on the right track in 1621 when they together celebrated a good harvest after a rough year. Nearly half the Pilgrims died the previous winter due to harsh conditions. The survivors gave thanks despite the hardships they experienced.

Psychologist and author Dr. Robert Emmons feels that gratitude is essential in times of crisis, giving us coping skills and overarching perspective that delivers hope and healing.

“Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, recover more quickly from illness and benefit from greater physical health, whether they’ve experienced minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals,” he states.

I think the key is “consciously cultivating” with some thoughtful practices and rituals of giving thanks that make an attitude of gratitude second nature.

Here are my take-aways from my reading on this subject:

1. Be happy to be alive! Joe Callahan, a nurse anesthetist at Essentia, and I have worked together often over the years. His mom, Marlys Callahan, was my teacher and golf coach at Shanley, and one of the happiest people I ever knew. I’ve always felt a special bond with Joe because of her. Joe carries that same happy spirit. If you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll reply:

“I opened my eyes today, took a deep breath and wiggled my toes. It’s a great day!”

I am frequently amazed and inspired by the grace with which my patients deal with illness, especially long-standing issues. Despite pain and frustration, they find much to be grateful for.

2. What’s the worst that can happen? I fly several times a year, and I know this is irrational, but I briefly think about a crash. My thoughts immediately go to my little boy, and how I would miss him. Am I being the best parent I can be? Confronting my mortality makes me want to do my best with the days I am given.

3. Reflect on the badness. Remembering challenges helps us contrast our present reality and not take things for granted. You don’t ignore the negativity or forget the past, but understand what you’ve been through and how far you’ve come. You can be grateful for surviving and acknowledge your strength in dealing with the badness.

4. Reframe the experience. It’s hard to see the silver lining, but sometimes stressful experiences shape our destiny and help us define meaning in our lives. Processing the experience with insight gives redemption. Within every obstacle, there is an opportunity to heal. The Greater Good Science Center of UC-Berkeley suggests asking these questions:

What lessons did the experience teach me? Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now even though I was not at the time it happened? What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me? How am I now more the person I want to be because of it? Have my negative feelings about the experience limited or prevented my ability to feel gratitude in the time since it occurred?

5. Gratitude is a choice. Pastor Will Bowen, from the Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, developed an experiment in which he asked his congregation to form a habit of gratitude by not complaining for 21 consecutive days. He used purple plastic bracelets to reinforce the practice. Since its inception, over 6 million people in more than 80 countries have participated in the pastor’s Complaint Free Challenge.

6. Pay it forward. Helping others, even as we endure personal suffering, helps shift our state to one of gratitude. Ask a Bell State Bank employee about their experience.

7. Write it down. Journaling is one of the best ways to make gratitude a practice. Stretch your brain and make a list of 100 things you are grateful for, then try to add something every day.

8. Seek inspiration. Spend some time on the website www.gratefulness.org for beautiful quotes and videos by Brother David-Steindl Rast, the world’s foremost authority on gratitude. He wrote, “In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

9. It’s the little things. Too often, we forget that life is not lived only in the big moments, but also in the seemingly mundane moments that are with us every day, like a child’s smile, a hot cup of coffee, a beautiful flower or a spectacular sunset. Laugh more, pay attention and you’ll find so much to appreciate.

Carry a pack of birthday candles wherever you go, like my friend Kerrie Blazek. You never know when you’ll find something or someone to celebrate, even when things are hard.

Pastor and writer William Arthur Ward said, “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.