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Touching heaven

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014

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“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some” (Wikiquote, Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, Ch. 2).

In 2003 two psychologists, Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis and Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, published a research paper on gratitude and its impact on well being. The results were fascinating.

The research was spread among three studies containing a few hundred people total. Participants were randomly assigned to either record their troubles, things they were grateful for or life’s events from a neutral outlook. In study 1, participants kept a weekly record and in study 2, participants kept a daily record. All of them recorded their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms and overall life appraisal.

Study 3 measured persons with neuromuscular disease and was split into two groups. One group was assigned a gratitude condition and the other a control condition. The results from all three studies demonstrated that the gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well being.

The research went on to express some specific effects that were manifest within the groups who cultivated a thankful outlook on life. Grateful participants:

Experienced heightened levels of joy and happiness

Were optimistic about the future

Felt better about their lives as a whole

Exercised more regularly

Were more likely to help others

Had more energy, enthusiasm, and focus

Made greater progress toward achieving important personal goals

Slept better and awoke feeling refreshed

Felt stronger during trying times

Enjoyed closer relationships

Dealt with stress better

Got sick less often

With such positive effects on the mind and body, it isn’t surprising that the scriptures are filled with multiple references encouraging the children of God to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

“And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more” (Doctrine and Covenants 78:19).

Modern-day prophets have also expressed the importance of a grateful heart for development of the soul. In the October 2010 general conference, President Thomas S. Monson said, “A grateful heart ... comes through expressing gratitude to our Heavenly Father for His blessings and to those around us for all that they bring into our lives. This requires conscious effort — at least until we have truly learned and cultivated an attitude of gratitude. Often we feel grateful and intend to express our thanks but forget to do so or just don’t get around to it. Someone has said that ‘feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.’

“When we encounter challenges and problems in our lives, it is often difficult for us to focus on our blessings. However, if we reach deep enough and look hard enough, we will be able to feel and recognize just how much we have been given.”

Cultivating gratitude can be even more difficult amidst life’s trials and challenges. Giving up on gratitude can bring even more misery. Elder Gordon T. Watts of the Seventy said, “Gratitude begins with attitude. While to some every apple shines, to others the remaining blemishes after the polishing process are all that’s visible. We must use caution not to be drawn into the growing populace of ungrateful people who have become calloused to blessings as they bicker in misery” (Gratitude, October 1998 general conference).

A former general Relief Society president, Sister Bonnie D. Parkin, said, “Gratitude requires awareness and effort, not only to feel it but to express it. Frequently we are oblivious to the Lord’s hand. We murmur, complain, resist, criticize; so often we are not grateful.” (Gratitude: A Path to Happiness, April 2007 general conference).

“The grateful man sees so much in the world to be thankful for, and with him the good outweighs the evil,” said President Joseph F. Smith. “Pride destroys our gratitude and sets up selfishness in its place.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., 1939, p. 263).

President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, “When you walk with gratitude, you do not walk with arrogance and conceit and egotism, you walk with a spirit of thanksgiving that is becoming to you and will bless your lives” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 1997, p. 250).

To possess a deep sense of gratitude requires work. The power it unlocks in a person’s life is tremendous. A whole range of temporal and spiritual blessings are accessed through sincere appreciation. Gratitude invigorates the soul. It overcomes fear, envy and comparison. It fills the heart with joy for the success of others. It frees the heart to love others and be concerned with more than self. The deeper our appreciation, the clearer we see with the eyes of the Savior and the more our life connects with our Heavenly Father.

President Monson said, “My brothers and sisters, to express gratitude is gracious and honorable, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live with gratitude ever in our hearts is to touch heaven” (The Divine Gift of Gratitude, October 1998 general conference).