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Human gratitude runs deep in our DNA

Human gratitude runs deep in our DNA

Over 10 years ago, I was part of a cohort at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church who read a book called “A Simple Act of Gratitude” by John Kralik.

After the study, Kralik visited the church as a guest speaker. I met and interviewed him for a newspaper article and he was just as charismatic in person as in the book. I never forgot the main lesson I learned during this experience, which was the more gratitude we give away the more it comes back to us. 

Chuck Wilson was the pastor at Long’s Chapel during that time, and something he did masterfully was to have us read books that weren’t spiritual in the traditional sense but left the reader feeling full of divine love and hope in humanity. I’ll always be grateful to Pastor Chuck for introducing this particular book into my life.

Kralik tells the story of hitting rock bottom in 2007 after a series of personal and professional setbacks. Thirty years after graduating from a prestigious law school, Kralik was twice-divorced and suffocating under a mountain of personal and professional debt. His law firm was struggling and he was forced to move into a cramped, dingy apartment where he was embarrassed to have his young daughter stay during his custody time. He was unhealthy and unmotivated, and in addition to all that, the lovely woman he’d been dating broke up with him right before Christmas. 

On New Year’s Day 2008, Kralik was in a dark place emotionally and decided to go on a hike in the hills of Pasadena. While walking, a voice from within encouraged him to be grateful for the good in his life instead of dwelling on the negative. He was also inspired by a “thank you” note his ex-girlfriend had given him. There was also a sense of urgency to act on his intuition. 

Over the next 15 months, Kralik wrote 365 thank you notes. The list of recipients spanned the gamut from family and friends to co-workers, store clerks, doctors, neighbors and even the barista at his favorite Starbucks. The experience was life-changing for him. Focusing on the good people in his life created a domino effect where his physical health improved dramatically, he found love, reconnected with his kids and became a successful attorney again. In 2009, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneger appointed Kralik as a judge for the Los Angeles County Superior Court, a position he still holds today. 

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I read recently that gratitude is an adaptation of evolutionary altruism and that reciprocity and paying-it-forward have been shown among human tribes and groups throughout time. This is why it feels so natural and joyful to help others and know that we matter. Research links gratitude with a wide range of physical and mental health benefits such as boosting your immune system, improving sleep pattern s , feeling less lonely, experiencing more joy, bolstering optimism and being more helpful and generous.

Over the past several years the concept of gratitude has become a bit commercialized and something of a trendy topic. Gratitude journals and T-shirts are all the rage on social media, but the true meaning of gratitude runs much deeper than retail items and Instagram posts. And while yes, we can be grateful for things and experiences, there is something much richer about the gratitude we feel for the people in our lives, whether we know them very well or not. Lately I’ve been so very grateful for my children’s athletic coaches and for other parents who can help out with transportation when I just can’t figure out the constant game of calendar Tetris. I’m grateful for bosses who don’t micromanage me and for a brilliant acupuncturist who I stumbled upon but who has enhanced my life tremendously. I’m grateful for neighbors willing to walk and feed our dog while we’re out of town or even a very knowledgeable customer service person who makes a potentially annoying phone call short and easy.

I also learned that grateful people tend to smile more and not take everything so seriously. Studies on the facial feedback hypothesis suggest that our facial expressions can potentially affect our subjective experience of the world. To me that says that while how we feel on the inside is often what makes us smile, sometimes if we simply smile first we remind our inner selves to be grateful and appreciative.

With John Kralik on my mind, I googled him to see what he’s been up to lately. He has an active blog page where he still writes wonderful stories. I found one from a year ago where he wrote of his late mother who had passed earlier that year at the age of 95. In her belongings, he found notes for a speech she was writing and in it, she said, “We all seem to be so caught up in the affairs of daily life that we never look at each other with wonder and appreciation, the wonder that is every human being’s heritage, their birthright.” 

As we go into this holiday season, let’s look at those in our lives a little differently. Let’s appreciate them more acutely. Let’s allow our minds to move away from expectations and judgment and move toward wonder and love. 

(Susanna Shetley is writer, editor and digital media specialist for The Smoky Mountain News. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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