We try to hold family prayer each night. We actually have a chart to keep track of whose turn it is to act as voice for our family's prayer. I have recently noticed our young daughter's tendency to briefly thank the Lord for all the blessings he has given us in one blanket statement before moving on to ask for numerous blessings. A few nights ago, I actually interrupted the prayer and asked my daughter to be more specific in thanking the Lord. I sense a family home evening lesson on gratitude coming up.
It didn't surprise me when I saw this article discussing the scientifically measured benefits of gratitude. Researchers designed a method for measuring gratitude among teens. They found that as "gratitude increases, so do life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes, hope and even academic performance." Rates of depression and physical illness are reduced, and rates of well-being and accomplishment increase as people are more grateful.
While the study focused on teens, the results very likely transfer to all age groups. One researcher noted that rates of gratitude were not closely tied to economic class or race. Poor teens were just as likely to be grateful as were rich teens. The study seems to suggest that beneficial gratitude is an internal matter: a way of thinking and approaching life.
I have tried to teach my children that expressions of gratitude in prayer should usually exceed requests for blessings. This can be useful in helping them creatively think about what to say during the 'thanking' portion of a prayer. We have one son that used to regularly thank the Lord for modern toilets and other sanitary systems on a regular basis. I am not opposed to expressing gratitude for this. But our son would frequently get detailed enough that the matter seemed less than reverent to the rest of us.
Simply attempting to enumerate expressions of gratitude in prayer can also lead children to spout rote and meaningless words simply to get to what they might see as more important requests for divine intervention. On the other hand, one blanket statement thanking the Lord may be appropriate if our hearts are actually filled with gratitude.
While our internal gratitude is more important than the words we say when thanking, I have sometimes found myself moved to greater gratitude by the words I say. While it may seem best for emotion to cause corresponding motion, sometimes getting in motion generates emotion.
Yesterday morning I was blessed to attend a worship service at an outdoor chapel overlooking Lake of the Woods in a remote area of Wyoming. It was easy to feel gratitude in that grand cathedral constructed by the hand of God and decorated far more beautifully than the finest man made chapel. I thought back to the first time I visited that place as a 12-year-old scout, and I felt gratitude for my scoutmaster Bob Porter.
Although I wasn't the youngest boy in the troop, I was the slowest when it came to hiking. Bob was right behind me as I slowly trudged my way to Beula Lake far behind the rest of the troop. Ditto for the return hike. As I reflected on this experience, I started to think about some of the people that had unselfishly served me throughout my life—far more than can be counted—and my heart swelled with gratitude.
One of the men present at the worship service got up and talked about coming to Camp Loll as a young scout. He then pointed at me and said that I had been one of the staff members that summer. He talked about some of the ways I had served him. I hadn't realized what an impact just doing my duty had had on him. It gave me joy to think that something I had done had blessed someone else. And this lifted me to a new level of gratitude.
I think that gratitude can be like that: part of an upward spiraling cycle of gratitude and joy. That's what I want my children to experience when they pray. It would seem that doing so carries side benefits of better mental and physical health. But the heavenly delight that comes from true gratitude seems more significant. I doubt there's any other way to get that kind of joy.