Why Gratitude is Good

Mark Forrester, the Vanderbilt University Chaplain and Director of Religious Life, offers ideas about the purpose of gratitude in anyone's life and why practicing it is a good choice for our health.

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Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I'm Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections.  I am here today with Reverend Mark Forrester, an ordained United Methodist minister and an alumnus of the Vanderbilt Divinity School.  Mark is currently the Vanderbilt University Chaplain and the Director of Religious Life.  If you need one more reason to be thankful, here it is.  More and more, researchers are finding that gratitude doesn't just make you feel like a better person.  It is actually good for your health.  Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person's life, said Robert Emmons, who is the Professor of Psychology at the University of California,  Davis.  It can lower blood pressure, improve your immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.  So, Mark, to add to the health reasons, could you tell our listeners why gratitude is such a good practice for each of us, regardless of any spiritual perspective?

Rev. Mark Forrester:  Well, thank you, Rosemary.  It is great to think about this important subject, and I do agree that practicing gratitude has a certain psychosomatic utility, you might say, that can promote health and wellbeing, and I also agree that you don't necessarily need to be religiously observant to experience or express gratitude, but I do believe that gratitude is inherently spiritual in the sense that the spiritual is that which extends us and expands us beyond our tiny little selves into the world and into the lives of other people.  So, I think that by exercising a daily habit of being grateful, we promote mental and social wellbeing, as well as physical, because it helps us to think and feel and act with a more holistic frame of reference.  That is, we somehow feel that our lives are made to be more vital and healthy to the extent that we know we are interconnected.  Maybe let me put it another way.  I think that gratitude is a healthy habit because it has ethical consequences.  That is, when we feel the most grateful, it is impossible for anyone to be cruel or callous or violent or indifferent, and I think because we live in such a materialistic culture, we are taught to strive to obtain all things so that we can enjoy life, but when we have gratitude working for us, then we acknowledge just the opposite.  Instead of acquiring all things in order to enjoy life, we know that we have been given life in order to enjoy all things.

Rosemary Cope:  Some people would say ... many of us, actually, would say that gratitude is not the first thing that I might think about, especially if things are not going well in my life.  What are some ways that people can practice gratitude in their everyday lives?

Rev. Mark Forrester:  Well, you know, maybe gratitude doesn't need to be the first thing that people think of everyday, but instead maybe it's the last thing that they can take to bed.  Gratitude is kind of like, what I would say as a religious person, a doxology.  That is, it exclaims, "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow."  Now, it doesn't mean you have to be a religious person, or even give thanks to God in a traditional sense, because I think that there are also secular forms of doxology.  I do believe, though, that grateful people, whether they are religious or secular, understand that our lives are a gift, and that life is not about tenaciously holding on to and justifying what we have.  It's about living as grateful people.  It is about being aware that all that we are and all that we have is a gift.

Rosemary Cope:  Mark, finally, how do you think that developing what I like to call "an attitude of gratitude" ... how can that change someone's life?

Rev. Mark Forrester:  I think that the kind of gratitude that really changes us at the core of who we are, that helps us to live healthy, sane and thankful lives, is that when we realize that we are not who we are, merely by ourselves, that we are not self-made, but that we owe so much of who we are to those who support us, to the communities that we live in, to those that we give our lasting commitments to ... and so, I think that developing an attitude of gratitude really has to do with just taking stock, at least at first, of the commitments that you have made, the successes that you have known, and to know that you haven't done this entirely on your own, that we are not totally independent, as we have just celebrated our Independence Day here in America, but I think we are now at another stage in our personal lives as well as in our global lives in which we are realizing more and more that we are interdependent.  So, I think it is the awareness of that interdependence that helps us to know that things are going to be graced and blessed insofar as we depend on each other and know that there is power and there is goodness in life that will help us to get through the day.

Rosemary Cope:  And those are all wonderful things to be grateful for.  Thank you for sharing those ideas with us.  If one of our listeners would want to contact you, what is your number and a website, please?

Rev. Mark Forrester:  Our website is very simply www.vanderbilt.edu/religiouslife, and you can call me directly at 322-4868.

Rosemary Cope:  Thanks for sharing these ideas with us.

Thank you for listening.  Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast by clicking the "Add New Comment" link at the bottom of this page.  If you have a story or a suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu, or you can use the "Contact Us" link on our website at healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu.