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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Expressions of Gratitude Improve Your Health

by Eric Nelson, guest contributor

58/365 apple or orange?Photo by Katie Harris/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Don’t worry. The article you are about to read has nothing to do with what you should or shouldn’t put on your Thanksgiving dinner plate. There’s nothing worse than having your hopes for the perfect holiday meal dashed by someone telling you that you might want to think twice before choosing this or that side dish.

No, this article is about the undeniable health benefits of thanksgiving — that is, the conscious expression of gratitude — itself.

Gratitude is extolled by every religion on earth as an essential virtue. Cicero, the renowned Roman orator, called it “not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Only recently, however, have medical researchers begun delving into the impact gratitude has on our mental and physical health.

One of the leaders in this field is U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of the book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”

Considered a pioneer in the field of “positive psychology” — a discipline that focuses less on illness and emotional problems and more on health-inducing behavior — Emmons makes a convincing case for the upside of maintaining a thankful attitude.

In one of Emmons’ studies, participants were divided into three groups. At the end of each week one group wrote down five things they were grateful for. Another group kept track of daily hassles. And a control group listed five events that had made some impression on them. In the end, Emmons discovered that those in the gratitude group generally felt better about their lives, were more optimistic about the future and — perhaps most importantly — reported fewer health problems than the other participants.

Mmmmm… nothing like a little gratitude to balance that extra helping of mashed potatoes.

Like many others, I can relate to what Dr. Emmons is discovering about the connection between a grateful heart and a healthy heart. But for me it goes even further, deeper than that. Over the years I’ve found that gratitude grounded in my spiritual practice, and not mere positive thinking, is the real key to consistent health.

Emmons notes this himself in his citation of a 2002 study (McCullough et. al.) that found that those who attend religious services or engage regularly in some type of religious activity such as prayer are more likely to be grateful. This is not to say that you have to be religious in order to be grateful, only that our faith tends to enhance our ability to be grateful.

While I have no idea what I’ll be having for dinner this Thanksgiving, one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that keeping track of what and how I think is at least as important as what I eat. Experience has shown that putting first things first will keep everything else — including my health — in order.

Eric NelsonEric Nelson is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California who likes to follow and write about trends in science, theology, and medicine.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


A Turn of the Century Thanksgiving Prayer by Walter Rauschenbush

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Wide OpenPhoto by Brian Auer/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Thanksgiving is a time when many families gather in gratitude, and sometimes in prayer. Paul Raushenbush says his family prayer was written by his great-grandad, Walter Rauschenbusch. Composed around the turn of the twentieth century, the theologian and Baptist social reformer’s words remain as beautiful and poignant today as they did a hundred years ago.

Thanksgiving Day Prayer
by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918)

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty;
And save our souls from being so blind
That we pass unseeing
When even the common thornbush
Is aflame with your glory,
O God our creator,
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Do you have a family prayer that you recite on Thanksgiving? How does your family give thanks?


Wisdom Comes at 65
Trent Gilliss, online editor

Last winter I paid a hefty fine to the Minneapolis Public Library. I couldn’t let go of several photography books, including a pair by Andrew Zuckerman: portraits of beautiful animals — two- and four-legged forms — supple and lithe in their stillness, majestic in simplicity, unpretentious and vulnerable.

Ravi ShankarI intended to share some of these images then; I’m glad I waited. This video from Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another shares the ideas and profundity of those who have lived a life worthy of furrows and ridges. A few of my favorites touching on themes of work and love, conflict and resolution:

You can’t get to wonderful without passin’ through all right.
—Bill Withers, musician

Love something. I think we’ve got to learn love something deeply.
—Andrew Wyeth, artist

The human being has a need for dignity just as like water, like air.
—Wole Soyinka, writer

If you’re willing to offer your life for it, you might actually get something done.
—Bernice Johnson Reagon, activist

If everyone takes care of their own area, then we won’t have any problems.
—Willie Nelson, musician

You don’t stop doing things because you get old. You get old because you stop doing things.
—Rosamunde Pilcher, writer

I get sillier as I get older. I don’t know what wisdom means.
—Judi Dench, actor

…who I am, and what I need, these are things I have to find out myself.
—Chinua Achebe, writer

(photo: Andrew Zuckerman)