Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Many Benefits of Gratitude

Dr. Emmons and his books

(Thanksgiving 2017: This homily was given on November 23, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 17: 11-19.)

(No audio available for this homily.)

His name is Robert Emmons.  He’s a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.  I mention him this Thanksgiving morning because Professor Emmons has spent the better part of his professional career researching the subject of gratitude (what it is; why it’s important; how to cultivate it in our lives, etc.), and his work is so well-respected that some people have gone so far as to call him “the world’s leading scientific expert” on the subject.

After studying more than 1,000 people of various ages (from 8 to 80), Dr. Emmons has reached the conclusion that giving thanks is beneficial in many different ways.  He puts the benefits he’s discovered into three separate categories: physical, psychological and social.  He says that, physically speaking, people who cultivate gratitude in their lives …
  • ·         Have stronger immune systems
  • ·         Are less bothered by aches and pains
  • ·         Tend to have lower blood pressure
  • ·         Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • ·         Sleep longer and feel more refreshed when they wake up

Psychologically they …
  • ·         Have higher levels of positive emotions
  • ·         Are more alert, alive and awake
  • ·         Experience more joy and pleasure
  • ·         Have more optimism and happiness

Socially they …
  • ·         Are more helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • ·         Are more forgiving
  • ·         Are more outgoing
  • ·         Feel less lonely and isolated

To all of that, of course, we, as Catholics, would add that thanksgiving also has spiritual benefits.  Aside from that fact that it strengthens our bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ, gratitude also makes our relationship with God stronger—and it opens us up to the many blessings that he wants to give us in our lives.  Case in point: the healed leper in today’s gospel reading from Luke 17.  After he comes back to Jesus and thanks him, our Lord gives him a blessing that the other nine did not receive: the grace of salvation—which in the grand scheme of things was a much more important blessing than his physical healing was!

Had he not expressed his gratitude as he did, he would not have received that special—and necessary—gift.

Dr. Emmons goes on to say that genuine gratitude has two components, both of which (not coincidentally) we see in this healed leper and in his response to Jesus.  The first is an affirmation of goodness.  When we’re truly grateful, we’re implicitly affirming the fact that goodness exists in the world (which, unfortunately, isn’t as obvious as it used to be!  And, if you don’t believe me, just watch the news or read a newspaper.  There’s a lot of bad stuff going on out there these days.).

In going back to Jesus to give thanks, this healed leper was affirming the goodness he had experienced through our Lord when he was healed.

The second component of gratitude according to Dr. Emmons is the recognition that the good things we’ve experienced and are grateful for have come from outside of ourselves.  He says (and here I quote): “True gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset [which, of course, we are!]—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

In the case of the healed leper, he acknowledged another person (a divine person) and he acknowledged a “higher power” (God himself) to be the source of the gift he had received.

And he did those two things at the very same time (since Jesus was—and is—a divine Person, God himself, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made man).

So, obviously, if we want to reap the many benefits of gratitude in our own lives, we’ve got to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” within ourselves—which requires some discipline and effort.  In his writings, Dr. Emmons offers some practical suggestions on how to do this, two of which I’ll mention today. 

The first is to keep a “Gratitude Journal.”  He writes: “Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy.  [Set] aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life.”

That, of course, is something we can do every day even if we don’t keep a journal.

Which brings us to his second suggestion, which is to make a vow to take some time every day to give thanks.  He says, “Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed.  Therefore, write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as ‘I vow to count my blessings every day,’ and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it every day.”

Those are two very simple—and very helpful—suggestions that can be incorporated into our life simply by following them during our personal prayer time.  We talk about the importance of praying every day.  Well, one of the things we should always do when we pray is to spend some time thanking the Lord for his many blessings.  In that sense, every day should be a “thanksgiving day” for Christians!

Let me end my homily this morning by saying this: It’s great to hear someone from the secular world like Dr. Emmons talking about the good things that can come into our lives from giving thanks.

But the fact of the matter is, my brothers and sisters, the Catholic Church has been doing that for 2,000 years!  We’re often told that the Catholic Church needs to “get with it”—that the Church needs to “catch up with the world.”  But this is yet another example of how untrue that is!  This is yet another example of the fact that it’s actually the world that needs to catch up with the Church!

Which means that when we do sit down to thank the Lord for our blessings each day, one of the first things we should thank him for—and one of the most important things we should thank him for—is that we’re Catholic!