After researching how gratefulness can improve our physical, spiritual and mental health — and make us happier in the process — Servite Sister Barbara Kennedy began to keep a gratitude journal. Each day she writes down three words or phrases that indicate specific things, people or events for which she’s grateful. “I try never to repeat myself,” she said. “If it’s a bad day and everything seems to have gone wrong, I can still find much to be grateful for, such as toothpaste or laundry soap.”

Sister Barbara, executive director of the Northwest Catholic Counseling Center in Northeast Portland, said the exercise shows how much we take for granted. “With a little reflection we can be amazed at the millions of gifts we experience each day.”

Keeping a gratitude journal isn’t like taking a pill: Results can take a while, but, she said, the effort will pay off.

In professional publications, researchers have produced more than 100 papers on depression for each one on happiness, but there is a growing body of evidence that we can affect how happy we are. As the French philosopher Albert Camus famously said, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.”

Over the past three decades or so, researchers have found surprises regarding happiness, including the fact that, on average, people with disabilities, including quadriplegics, describe themselves as happier than the general public.

They have, perhaps, been forced to recognize that invincible summer as most of us have not.

Studies involving twins have shown that a large part of our individual happiness level is predicated by genetics, but the second most important factor comes from our own behavior and intent. People who practice kindness report becoming happier, as do those who practice gratitude, which seems to have a more immediate effect.

“Research has determined a profound connection between gratitude and all areas of health,” said Sister Barbara.

Physically, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains, less stress, and they’re more likely to exercise and get regular check-ups.

As for psychological health, she said gratitude reduces a multitude of negative, harmful emotions like envy, frustration and regret. It reduces depression and in addition, grateful people are more empathetic and less aggressive.

Gratitude reduces social comparisons so that people are able to appreciate others’ accomplishments without any loss of self-esteem.

The Providence Health and Services blog lists five benefits that studies have shown gratitude practice can deliver:

• More happiness

• More fulfilling relationships, including marriages

• Increased productivity at work

• Increased self-esteem and resilience to challenges

• Better physical health, including fewer doctor’s visits, lower blood pressure and decreased pain

One of Sister Barbara’s favorite resources is the website gratefulness.org. They send her a daily email on gratitude. The website and emails are based in large part on the work of Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, a well-known writer on gratitude.

Benedictine Sister Dorothy Jean Beyer in Mount Angel also receives that email, which she reposts on her Facebook timeline, often receiving thanks for the messages.

Sister Dorothy Jean shared a video featuring Brother David with the St. Mary Parish prayer shawl ministry. Sister Dorothy Jean sees sharing gratitude as being similar to the prayer shawl ministry. “We make a difference in small ways,” she said. “When you’re grateful you want to share it with others. The prayer shawls are full of prayers for someone who needs comfort, and when I’m grateful and peaceful with another person, it also comforts and spreads the good news of Jesus.”

Sister Dorothy Jean also recommends keeping a gratitude journal. “Every night, take the time to think about your day and write down the things you’re grateful for,” she says. “Or if you don’t have the time for that, just write down one thing.”

There is tension between the self and selflessness in gratitude practice.

Several studies seem to show that motivation, effort and beliefs made a difference in whether study participants became happier as they practiced gratitude techniques. People who wanted to become happier, who put effort into the exercises and who believed the exercises would work gained the most.

That seems as though it could turn kindness and gratitude into a egocentric game of garnering more and more happiness — except for the “paradox of happiness.” That is, a community or individual will probably be less happy if they are only self-centeredly focused on pursuing happiness. Happiness is more likely to arise from “flow,” (focusing on a challenging project), from focusing on the happiness of others or on practicing gratitude — or all three.

Faith, the firm belief in God’s love for the world, also reorders priorities so that our own happiness isn’t foremost, ironically resulting in greater happiness.

“I think people who are spiritually oriented may be more grateful,” said Sister Barbara, who added that psychology has given us the empirical evidence to support many of the messages found in the Gospels.

“You can’t be grateful enough,” concluded Sister Dorothy Jean. “God has given us everything.”