Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Life of Gratitude

A Midsummer's Night Lecture
Let me begin by telling a very bizarre story; I call it "A Midsummer's Night Lecture."  I was a teenager; maybe about 14 years old.  It was summer.  We often went water skiing with our cousins or on a church activity.  One night, after returning from one of these trips, my sister and I were dropped off by one of the adult leaders.  We walked into our home, my sister then changed clothes and left to go to a friend's home.  I stayed home.  My dad was sitting in his chair - he called me over proceeded to give me one of the most forceful lectures I've ever received in my life.

He appeared upset that I was not grateful.  At the time, and still to this day, I honestly do not know what provoked the lecture.  My only theory is that I did not thank the adult leader who dropped us off after the trip and that my sister mentioned this to my dad before she left to go to her friend's home.  I didn't argue with my dad; rather, I was utterly surprised and caught off guard.

The point of this bizarre story is this: in my dad's eyes, gratitude was extremely important.  So important, that a supposed lack of expressing some gratitude for a car ride prompted him to sternly lecture me that summer night long ago.

The Utility of Gratitude
I'm a big believer in utility.  If something in life isn't very useful; then why use it?  This life is so full of things and stuff and ideas and philosophies.  And since life is so short, I believe we don't have time to deal with things that don't have utility.  And so, on the subject of gratitude, I have come to the conclusion that is has significant utility in our lives.  I believe gratitude is a type of glue or bond that holds our marriages, families, wards, communities and even holds the world together.  Gratitude changes our attitude towards ourselves and others.  There have been several studies that have confirmed this.  Let me share a few of them.

One study randomly assigned people to three different groups.  Each of the three groups would write in a journal once a week for ten weeks.  The first group would describe 5 things they were grateful for in the previous week.  The second group would record 5 things that displeased them during the previous week and the third group was told to simply write 5 things that affected them and they were not told to focus on either positive or negative things.

I'm sure you won't be surprised, but the group that focused on gratitude for those 10 weeks were 25% happier; had fewer health complaints and even exercised 1.5 hours more than the other groups.

Another study focused on people who wrote about things for which they were grateful every day.  In this study, the results were those people offered more emotional support and help for other people with problems.  Their goodwill increased.

Other studies have found that those who focus on gratitude have had happier spouses and had less bouts of depression.

One doctor, who has studied marriages for over twenty years, claims that he can can predict, often after only 3 minutes of observation, which marriages will flourish and which will flounder.  His success rate is 90% and his secret is this:  he counts the ratio of positive expressions (including expressions of gratitude) to negative expressions between the husband and wife.  Those who have a 5:1 ratio will flourish.

(source: The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier)

Being Grateful vs. A Life of Gratitude
Perhaps last week or evening during this next week, you or your children have participated or will participate in some activity which asked you to list all your blessings.  Perhaps you have made, as my family has done in the past, a Thankful Turkey, where you write about something for which you are grateful on a colorful feather and then glue it on turkey.  Perhaps after singing the hymn Count Your Many Blessings, you have sat down and pondered all that you have in this life.

Certainly, we have all been grateful for things at one point in our life.  However, the key question is: are we living a life of gratitude?  Is there a difference between being grateful and living a life of gratitude? I think activities such as counting our blessings absolutely puts us on the path of living a life of gratitude, but that is only the beginning.

Consider this hypothetical situation.  It's Thanksgiving Day in Jerusalem around 601 or 602 BC.  Lehi's family sits around the table to have a Thanksgiving feast.  Before they begin to eat, Lehi asks everyone around the table to say something for which they are grateful.  Lehi and Sariah express gratitude for their family, their home and a loving God.  Laman is next; he's grateful for a new goblet and plate.  Lemuel is grateful for a new coat.  Nephi expresses gratitude for his parents and Sam was grateful for a warm bed to sleep in.  Certainly they were all grateful that last Thanksgiving before leaving Jerusalem.  Now we'll see who was being grateful and who was living a life of gratitude.

You know this part of the story.  They leave their home and flee to the wilderness.  Laman and Lemuel complain, whine and demand that they stay in Jerusalem.  Once they are sufficiently away from Jerusalem, what is the first thing Lehi does?  1 Nephi 2:7 "And it came to pass the he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks."  Lehi then names a river and a valley after Laman and Lemuel, but there is no record of them giving thanks.  In fact, they continued to complain.  They whined about how Lehi was seeing things and that they had to leave home and all their gold and silver.  And they feared they would die in the wilderness.  I think it is safe to say Laman and Lemuel felt entitled.  They deserved to stay home.  They deserved to keep their possessions.  They probably gave proof that some of their friends didn't have to leave town.  Before storming off, they might have said, "this life is so unfair!".

Then the boys are sent back to retrieve the brass plates.  After hearing their father explain why they needed to go back, Laman and Lemuel must have rolled their eyes and said, "Are you kidding me?  We just got here and now you want us to go back?!"  You know, we laugh at this amusing take on 1st Nephi, but how many of us have said or thought something similar?  What is our ratio of expressions of gratitude to complaints?

I could go on with this story of Laman and Lemuel and Nephi.  But I'll leave that to you.  Maybe sometime this week, sit down, pull up and read 1 Nephi and then think about the different reactions of these brothers.  How did they react when they were about to starve to death in the wilderness?  How did they react when they found the Liahona?  How did they act when they got to Bountiful?  And how did they act on the ship?  In those chapters are ample evidence of what a life of entitlement looks like contrasted with what a life of gratitude looks like.

How to Live a Life of Gratitude
I hope I've given you some things to think about today.  This last part of my talk will focus on what you can do to begin living a life of gratitude.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson said, "cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously."

Robert Emmons, who has done extensive research on gratitude said, "life is a series of problems that have to be solved - and a lot of times those problems cause stress.  Gratitude can be that stress buster."

WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU ARE THANKFUL FOR IN A JOURNAL (blog, twitter, facebook, instagram).  Make it a habit; write five to ten minutes a day, about what you are grateful for.

DON'T AVOID THE NEGATIVE.  Embrace setbacks as part of the overall journey.  Sometimes, you can even recall a hard time you've experienced and compare it with your current state.  You will feel grateful and it may help you accept and deal with current and future challenges in life.

SPEND TIME WITH YOUR LOVED ONES.  Gratitude helps us connect with other people.  It strengthens relationships

MINDFULLY USE SOCIAL MEDIA  Connected to the journal, I suggest leveraging social media to jot down things you are grateful for.  Positive thoughts shared on social media spread faster than negative thoughts.

KNOW THE VALUE OF THE LITTLE THINGS  A kind word, opening the door for someone, a hug, spending time to listen.  All these are little things we can do.  And as we do the little things, we are more prone to pay it forward.

VOLUNTEER OR SERVE Acting on those feelings of gratitude will prompt us to serve.  Whether we help with a big service project or a small project, our gratitude increases when we serve.

(Source: 7 Habits of Grateful People)

Let me begin to close with this quote you may have heard or read before.  It is by Victor Frankl.  He survived the Nazi concentration camps.  Those prisoners were stripped of everything physically and psychologically.  Yet there were some who kept their true freedom.

He said, "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one's own way."

And so it is with us; we must choose to either live of life of entitlement or a life of complaint; or we can choose to live a life full of gratitude to our Heavenly Father and to all around us.

Gratitude, when you truly think about it, is a means to connect with people; as I said earlier, it is a type of social glue or bond.  Serving and gratitude go hand in hand.  And when we serve and give thanks and when we are served and receive thanks, we are making a connection with others.  And as we make those connections in our family and with our friends and in our ward and community, we strengthen the bonds of love.  And when we strengthen the bonds of love, we make the world a better place.

I am grateful for my wife Jill.  This year has been a huge struggle for me.  She has listened to me; she has prayed for me; she has served me.  Up until August this year, Jill and I would get up at 4:45 in the morning and go on a 4 mile walk - it took us about an hour to walk that.  And we would talk.  I loved our walks and talks.  She listened to me; I listened to her.  We gave each other advice and we sought to understand each other.  We have grown so close because of those walks and I can't wait until school gets out next summer so we can continue that tradition every morning.  But for now, we find time in the morning before work or at night when the kids are in bed or we go a date and we talk and listen.  I have never felt more grateful for anyone than her.  I love her and am truly grateful for her.

Brother and sisters - please have gratitude in your hearts.  Strive to live a life of gratitude.  I know you will he happier and healthier if you do.

In the name of Jesus Christ - amen.