Judy Vaughan, founding director of a shelter for women and children in Los… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Before we eat Thanksgiving dinner at my house, along with saying grace, each of the 20 or so people at the table takes a turn lighting a candle and expressing gratitude. The appreciation can be lighthearted — for mashed potatoes or a day off from school. Or the thankfulness may be accompanied by a heavy heart — for the memories of a loved one recently passed.
As it happens, this expression is not an empty exercise. And if we developed the discipline to be consciously grateful on a regular basis, year-round, research shows we'd be happier and suffer less depression and stress. We'd sleep better and be better able to face our problems.
There's evidence that gratitude is uniquely important to well-being. Long embraced by religion as a "manifestation of virtue," it's one of the few things that "can measurably change people's lives," says Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has been studying gratitude since 1998 and is the author of the book "Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier."
"Gratitude implies humility — a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others," Emmons writes.
At a time when Thanksgiving is the starting gun for a race to the mall, Jeffrey Froh has some insight as well.
"We know there's a negative relationship between materialism and gratitude. That's pretty powerful right there," says Froh, a professor at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island. His research with more than 1,000 high school students showed that grateful teenagers were also less likely to be depressed, more likely to want to give back to their communities and more likely to have higher grade-point averages, among other traits.
But despite the benefits, Emmons says, gratitude is in trouble.
"Outside of happiness, gratitude's benefits are rarely discussed these days. Indeed, in contemporary American society, we've come to overlook, dismiss or even disparage the significance of gratitude as a virtue," he says.
"We have become entitled, resentful, ungrateful and forgetful."
Not all of us.
"I learned from my mom the importance of saying thanks," Vaughan says. "She was born in 1916 and came from the school that said when you got gifts, you wrote notes."
Vaughan is a St. Joseph of Carondelet nun who "has real trouble with the institutional church" but a rock-solid belief in a God who is "a loving spirit who has my back," and a doctorate in social ethics from the University of Chicago. She founded and has lived since 1996 at Alexandria House, which actually is two lovely Mid-Wilshire homes offering transitional housing and support to homeless women and their children.
"Gratitude gives an opening to the universe to give more good things. Gratitude is opening to receive more good things from the universe," says Vaughan.
She tries to be grateful every day, even now, when Alexandria House faces falling state and private funding.
On this particular morning, a new resident complains that someone had eaten food she'd put in the kitchen. House rules are that anyone can eat food in the kitchen, and Vaughan asked the woman to sort it out with the other resident. They did, without a fight, and the new resident later told Vaughan she had a newfound appreciation for being pushed to work things out.
"Gratitude really is a perspective. It is one that needs to be cultivated," Vaughan says. "It is a gift from God in my life that I like almost everyone I meet. I'm not naïve, but I really work at seeing the positive in people."
Alexandria House can hold 28 people; the average length of stay is 10 months. Services include daycare, after-school and teen programs. More than 150 families have come through; most of them keep in touch.
Vaughan has a gentle demeanor and a white-haired Dorothy Hamill hairdo. At 53, she became a mother when a colleague came across a newborn who needed a home and asked Vaughan to consider it. Vaughan felt old, unprepared and, of course, she's a nun. But "I held her up. That bonding thing is real." Now her daughter is a high school freshman with a cool purple bedroom at Alexandria House.
The future is filled with uncertainty. "Right now we have no money. We have a stack of bills. Who do I call? Who can wait to be paid? But our doors are open today. I'm grateful for that."
Gratitude could save the planet, says filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg.
"If you can really absorb the beauty of a flower or a landscape, can you really bear to see it destroyed?" he asks. "Gratitude touches your heart. And we need the heart to create a shift in consciousness."
Schwartzberg, who has been shooting time-lapse photography of flowers for more than three decades, showed his "Gratitude" film at a TEDx Talk; it's among the most-watched presentations.