"Gratitude is said to be a virtue, but I find it helpful to think of it as a practice. Unlike playing the piano, meditating, or playing sports, the practice of gratitude is easy and painless. You practice it each time you thank someone. This is a courtesy Oprah observes as a talk show host. She invariably thanks each guest for his or her appearance and always closes the show with her thanks. Since she has spoken with and interviewed thousands of very different people in her career, Oprah has gotten extensive daily practice in gratitude.
"Gratitude is like a muscle that needs to be used often. Even if a feeling of gratitude isn't there, practice helps. Practice brings about the sentiment. "What we have to do is practice, and the feelings come afterward," says M.J. Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy every Day of your Life.
"In Oprah's gospel, gratitude is a recognition of abundance, an acknowledgement of blessings. There is more than enough to go around, and getting a portion of that kindles gratitude. Gratitude measures the distance between have-not and have, and is a reminder of the journey, one that Oprah's own life exemplifies. 'I have been beyond blessed,' she told USA Today in 2004, when she opened her nineteenth television season by giving away 276 cars. 'Every time I pass the front of my house I sing "Jesus Loves Me," and the other day I remembered I was jogging past and now it's like a superstition I had gotten past without saying it and went back, "Jesus loves me! Jesus loves me!" '
"Oprah may have learned 'Jesus Loves Me' in the church where she grew up. But a religious basis for gratitude for undeserved love and grace won't school those whom organized religion doesn't reach. Ryan suggests that Oprah teaches some of what used to be learned in churches to people who don’t' necessarily have a formal religious practice or membership. 'People receive the message from her that they couldn't get from anywhere else,' Ryan says. The 'nones' Americans who say they have no religious affiliation are a large, and growing, group, measured in a 2004 National Opinion Research Center study at 14 percent of the population.
"Gratitude has been a repeated practice and subject on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah has referred to the gratitude journal she keeps. In a gratitude journal, the writer lists five things each day to be grateful for. Keeping the journal provides daily practice. Oprah says he took the lesson of gratitude from the 1995 best-selling book Simple Abundance by Sarah ban Breathnach, who has appeared on a number of shows.
"The April 17, 2000, show, 'Gratitude Stories,' opens with Oprah's words, 'Thank you. Two words that can make miracles.' Ban Breathnach is a guest, and a number of other guests whose stories are featured discuss gratitude journals. Husband and wife John and Karen Calvin talk about Karen's recovery from a car accident in 1982 that left her paralyzed from the neck down and feeling depressed and suicidal. But the husband's steady support brought his wife around. Karen says, 'And I am so grateful to John for, once again, seeing in me what I didn't see in myself.' Karen, a nurse, went on to found the National Spinal Cord Injury Hotline.
"Later on the show, guests Jules and Jan Broom describe how their daughter Shannon inspired them through her gratitude journal, which they found and read after she was killed in an automobile accident. They used her art and words to make and give away 20,000 bookmarks, a process of 'bookmark therapy' for their grief. Oprah wraps up the show by saying, 'If you start being grateful for what you have, you will begin to see that you have more. That is how you increase abundance in your life, is by seeing what you already have.'
"On these as on other shows, life stories teach and testify. Like a preacher, Oprah asks for a witness and then presents guests how offer examples of how gratitude has benefited their lives. They function as encouraging role models of positive thinking, resilience, and gratitude. . . .
"Prayer also gives practice in Gratitude. A short article in the August 2004 issue of the magazine doesn't prescribe prayer or tell you to say grace before meals. Author Lauren F. Winner writes that saying grace transforms a meal into a celebration. You don't have to pray, but it will help you celebrate. The grateful person knows that she lives well. 'Saying grace suggests not only the grazie of thanksgiving but also the clam, gracious elegance of living fully and well,' Winner writes. Who doesn't want to live well, especially when it's only an acknowledgement of gratitude away? The 'should' stick has been replaced by the 'reward' carrot.
"M.J. Ryan counts gratitude among what she calls modern virtues. Modern virtues qualities of heart and mind including patience, kindness, gratitude, and generosity can be cultivated, she says. Gratitude is noticing what's right and cultivating that recognition often and regularly. 'Is it driving to work, saying something at the dinner table, keeping a journal? The trick is to find the one that you will do.'
"Like many, I keep a gratitude journal. I got the idea for keeping one from Oprah. I began it in 2004 when I was taking part in a spiritual formation group. We were asked to pick a discipline, something we would do each day that would serve to remind us of things of the spirit. I chose a gratitude journal because it seemed easy and natural rather than something I would have to force myself to do. I have written in it virtually every day since. I write in it even when I don't feel particularly grateful. It has given me insight into discipline as well as gratitude. Consistency is more important than my feeling of gratitude, which may be present on any given day or not. I have become grateful for the task. I have no sense of compulsion about the writing. It helps me not take things for granted, as so many guests on Oprah have affirmed from their experience. It shifts my focus to what has gone well, provided delight, or been a literal or figurative gift, sometimes long after I have received something. Along with scientists and Oprah guests, I have found the practice encourages satisfaction with what I have. Thanksgiving is less of an effort and more of a habit.