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November 30, 2021

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Celebrate the power of ‘thank you’

Even if you’re already up to your giblets in platitudes about gratitude, chew on this morsel: Saying “thank you” is good for you.

Seriously, good for you.

In study after study, researchers have found that saying those two, single-syllable words can yield big rewards in our spiritual and physical health.

In one project, participants were put into two groups, with one group asked to write about things they were grateful for and the other asked to keep track of the irritations they encountered. After 10 weeks, the folks in the first group were not only more optimistic but actually had fewer visits to their doctors.

Another study found partners who expressed their thanks to each other had healthier relationships.

And a University of California, San Diego study of patients with asymptomatic heart failure found that those who had higher gratitude scores, using a six-item scale, were associated with better sleep, more energy and lower levels of inflammation, which can worsen heart failure.

Part of the upside can be explained this way: Giving and receiving thanks causes the brain to release feel-good neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions.

But here’s the curious part: A national survey funded years ago by the John Templeton Foundation found that while most of us know how important gratitude is, we do a lousy job of actually thanking people. As the findings put it, “A significant gratitude gap exists in America.”

So on this day dedicated to giving thanks, let’s look at closing that gap.

Inspiring good deeds

The Rev. Reginald Gary doesn’t have to be convinced. Gary, who has been senior pastor of New Creation Church of San Diego for 25 years, believes this painless phrase is “vitally important” to our mental stability and to doing good in the world.

“I think one of the reasons we have so much anger and grief in the world is that people don’t feel appreciated, affirmed and celebrated — and the two simple words ‘thank you’ does so much more than you can ever know,” he says.

Gary thinks saying it and hearing it motivates us to keep doing good deeds. “It’s one of the best things you can hear.”

So why don’t we express it more often?

“I think some people have different levels of gratitude,” Gary said. “They think what you’ve done for them is something you’re obligated to do for them.”

In the Templeton survey on gratitude, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said it was “very important” for their spiritual and religious leaders to teach thankfulness. I asked Gary if he does that.

“I think you lead by example,” he said. “I think that clergy should be very, very quick (to say thank you). It should be an instantaneous response to an act or a word or a deed done either to them or to their family or to the church.”

He advocates teaching children to say it just as soon as they are able to talk. He remembers feeding his now-grown children when they were in high chairs. When they were done eating, he’d remind them to say thank you to he or his wife. “So now it’s just automatic.”

Praying it forward

When the Rev. Steve and Abigail Albert pray, they express gratitude for what they have now — and what they are affirming for the future.

“When I start my prayers, I say, ‘Thank you God for our perfect health now,’ knowing in fact it may not have happened just yet but I’m thanking in advance knowing even more good is coming,” Steve Albert said.

“When we thank first without seeing the results, we are activating our faith and believe in heart and mind without doubt,” Abigail Albert says.

The couple, both 73, are New Thought ministers, a spiritual and philosophical movement that believes God moves through all things and embraces the metaphysical power of positive thinking. They quote the late Ernest Holmes, a New Thought leader and writer: “Change your thinking; change your life.”

The Alberts also are active in interfaith efforts — she is executive director of the Poway Interfaith Team and he is director of the World Interfaith Network, which liaisons with interfaith groups internationally.

Gratitude, they say, creates a positive energy. And telling someone thank you is important both for the person saying it and the person receiving it.

“Whatever you put out comes back to you,” says Abigail Albert. “If you’re in gratitude, there’s going to be something good coming back and you’re going to say thank you some more.” In New Thought, this is called the Law of Circulation, she says. Others may know it as karma.

The Alberts agree with the findings of the gratitude studies. “People who are happier are healthier,” Steve Albert tells me. “People who are fearful or anxious feel it in the body and may be more prone to attract sickness to them. And I choose to be healthy.”

An ancient problem

The “gratitude gap” revealed by the national survey may not be such a new revelation.

Consider the biblical story of Jesus healing 10 lepers. Guess how many of them returned to say thank you?


That’s all.

Just one out of the 10.

Jesus’ stories are like Russian nesting dolls, with lessons packed one after the other. But expressing gratitude is surely one of the lessons in this one.

And now we have science, in addition to spirituality, to convince us of the benefits of returning to say thank you.

“If you know anything at all about the science of happiness, you know that gratitude is great for our well-being,” writes columnist Jessica Stillman in Inc. Magazine. “It rewires your brain for positivity, boosts your energy levels, and if your thankfulness is directed at someone else, makes the receiving party feel great.”

So go double-check your grocery list for today’s dinner and think about how you can close this gap. And don’t forget the cranberry sauce.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot something, too. Thank you for reading this column.

Sandi Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a former president of the Religion News Association.