Practicing Gratitude

Gratitude is one of the keys to a happy life, but it must be practiced. Right teaching, self-sacrifice, and hardship in life often contribute to building gratitude.

By Mark D. Harris

For most of my medical career, I have cared for military members, past and present. Many were impressive. One patient in Schweinfurt, Germany in the late 1990s had climbed Point Du Hoc with the 2nd Ranger Battalion on D-Day. Other patients flew bombing raids over Japan in campaigns led by Hap Arnold and Curtis LeMay. Several fought with MacArthur in Korea. And of course, many had seen combat in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

I have also cared for civilians. Many were the wives and children of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. A tiny fraction were foreigners – allies from Iraq, Afghanistan, or NATO – who sought treatment in US Army facilities. A few had no affiliation at all with the military – many of these people were Medicaid recipients in Memphis struggling with debt, drugs, disability, depression, discontentment, disease, and ultimately death.

Some of these patients approached life and medical care with a heart of thankfulness, an attitude of gratitude, and some did not. One elderly black gentleman in Memphis had lost both of his legs to diabetes, had suffered heart attacks, and was close to his earthly end, but he remained thankful and cheerful. An aging Caucasian veteran in his final months struggled through cancer, chronic pain, and disability, but deeply appreciated his care and was a delight to his medical team.  Many people who work in Veteran’s Hospitals tell me that they work there because the patients are so thankful for what they have been given, even when the final outcome is poor. One experienced doctor said “Veterans thank you when you take care of them. Civilians don’t – they think they are entitled to everything you give them…and more.” Residents alike have noticed the difference.

Why do some patients believe that health care is a gift to be thankful for and others believe that it is an entitlement to be demanded? Why do some people believe that food, housing, education, and everything else in life are gifts to be thankful for and others believe that they are entitlements to be demanded?

Politics is one reason. Human rights are just that, rights, which rapidly become entitlements in the minds of men. If “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are basic human rights, then governments are obligated to protect them, and if possible, provide them. If health care is a basic human right, the same is true. Citizens demand their rights, customers demand their rights, followers demand their rights, and governments, businesses, and leaders comply. If they don’t, they are incompetent, or wicked.

Another reason is habit. People who usually get what they want learn to expect that they will always get what they want. Messages like “Have it your way” (Burger King) and “You deserve a break today” (McDonalds), echoing a thousand times in a hundred different venues, and coupled with repeated and instant desire gratification, result in raised expectations. To restate, if you believe that you deserve a hamburger, and you usually get a hamburger whenever you want, you will come to expect that you will always get hamburgers whenever you want. Gradually, you will also expect to get everything else you want, from a free college degree to free health care to a guaranteed basic income, regardless of your own efforts. Even more, if a man truly believes that he deserves something, getting that thing becomes his moral right, and anyone who fails to give him what he believes he deserves is acting immorally.

If citizen A believes that health care is a right, and he habitually gets health care when he wants it, he will always expect to get health care when he wants it. His expectations will grow beyond health care to include food (“who can be healthy without food?”) and housing (“a safe place to live is crucial to my health”). If doctor B does not give citizen A health care, farmer C does not give him food, and builder D does not give him housing, citizen A believes that they are refusing to give him what he deserves. He begins to believe that they are evil.

A third reason is ease. A man who earns his living by the sweat of his brow learns that lazy equals hungry. He discovers that the only place where work follows success is in the dictionary. He finds dignity in his work, and meaning beyond his own short lifetime. This man finds that he needs others to accomplish big things, and he works with them.

By contrast, a man who gets without giving never learns to give. He finds his meaning in what he consumes rather than what he creates. It is hard to find dignity in self-focused consumption. This man discovers that he is estranged from others, who are no more interested in meeting his needs than he is in meeting their needs. Man can choose to work together, or to consume alone.

America has led the world for 70 years, and Americans have gotten most of what we wanted. In many ways, we are the most blessed nation in world history. And daily we grow less grateful for it.

Some people, and many veterans agree with my father, who used to say, “the world doesn’t owe you a living.” Other people, and a few veterans, agreed with my uncle, who used to say, “the world owes me a living.”  Both groups may be convinced of the rightness of their position. Medically, however, grateful people do far better than ungrateful ones. Entitled people are often miserable people, and consequently sick people.

The Bible is clear about the question:

Philippians 2:4 –  Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

1 Thessalonians 3:10 – For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

Scripture is also clear about how to have gratitude:

Philippians 4:6-7 – Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 – In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

If veterans are more grateful on average, perhaps it is because they are taught loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. If older people are more thankful on average, perhaps it is because they have suffered more. People are shaped by their experiences, and these experiences often contribute to gratitude. Troubles are not necessarily bad.


Whether the issue is food, housing, education, health care, or anything else in life, let us practice gratitude. Let us not fear hardship, but face it. Let us not flee work, but find it. Let us not consume for ourselves, but create for others. They will be blessed, as will the world.

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