This familiar quote by Meister Eckhart, German theologian and philosopher, echoed what the psalmists expressed hundreds of years earlier: gratitude is at the heart of a faithful life.
We know that gratitude is central to spiritual well-being, but recently, social scientists in various academic settings have affirmed that this practice enhances mental and physical health as well. The research of Dr. Bryan Sexton and Sr. Laurie Santo offers some specific tools that are useful for those involved in faith formation, especially in the time of Covid-19.
Young people already have high levels of anxiety, and the pandemic has only exacerbated mental health concerns. High numbers of youth say they feel stressed and overwhelmed. The practice of gratitude works to make us feel better and connects us to the divine spirit.
Dr. John Bryan Sexton, Director of Duke University Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality focused studies on health care workers who demonstrate high levels of burnout. He sought to find ways to help people restore balance in their lives to build up resilience for thriving. His findings show that positive emotions can be cultivated and help recharge those who live in constant stress. This is especially important because of the interplay between mind and body. Studies show that those with good mental outlook have a boost in immunity and are more able to fight off attack by viruses.
One of the key findings was the value of naming Three Good Things each day. It’s simple: before you go to bed, recap the day. What were three good things? Or what were three blessings? Then add a descriptor that identifies the emotion you felt such as pride, awe, gratitude, inspiration, interest hope, love, joy, amusement, or serenity. Sexton even provides an app to remind and help you record your thoughts.
This may already be in your toolkit of spiritual practices and a regular part of your prayer life. What is interesting is that Dr. Sexton found that this tiny habit has a big impact. It is not the magnitude of the effort but the repetition and frequency that makes a difference. He says even though negative voices seem to scream loudly at us, and positive voices tend to whisper, a simple practice can begin to reset the volume levels. Noticing and recording Three Good Things for five days a week over a period of three weeks is enough to change habits. Neural pathways are retrained, and mental health improves. In addition, the practice builds up one’s ability to notice. Attention to Three Good Things will help a person cultivate joy and look forward with hope.
Dr. Sexton claims that this practice is better than or equal to anti-depressants. His hospital workers at Duke have implemented the initiative throughout the institution in order to shift culture. Team leaders begin meetings by inviting staff to share good things and decorate ‘Gratitude Murals’ that line the walls in a staff corridor.
Dr. Laurie Santos, Cognitive Psychologist at Yale University affirms this work and takes the practice of gratitude one step further. In a recent presentation to youth ministry leaders at Youth Ministry Initiative. (Youth Leaders will want to check out the excellent resources on YMI page.) She teaches the tremendously popular class, “The Science of Well-Being” and hosts the podcast the Happiness Lab.
Santos recommends that her students make time for gratitude every day; to pause and ‘savor’ experiences and create a gratitude journal. To maximize the happiness benefit, Santos suggests taking time to write a gratitude letter to someone they would like to thank: a teacher, a neighbor, or a friend or relative who has helped shape their life. Then, follow up to deliver it—not just dropping it in the mail—but in person (or via phone call or zoom!) and read it. The result is joy for both the giver and the recipient and the blossoming of compassionate hearts.
So, renew the simple daily practice of gratitude, take time to pay attention, and be sure to express your thanksgiving to God and each other.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 136
Debby Kirk is the Faith Formation Team Leader of the Southern New England Conference. She serves on the Faith Formation Team and oversees the Youth and Young Adult Ministries programs of the Conference. She organizes leadership development programs ...