2016-12-01 / Features

Living the Grateful Life

How Four Local People Employ Gratitude to Empower Their Lives
Hilary Hauck | Photos by Matt Fern

When I heard the claim that it’s gratitude that makes us happy, not happiness that makes us grateful, I did a quick run-through of my blessings, and I did feel a little happier. Then I began to wonder whether there was more to it than that. What can happen if we intentionally boost our gratitude to dizzying heights? Eager to learn more, I asked four outstanding local leaders what gratitude means to them and how they use gratitude in their daily lives.

SPREADING GOOD VIBESLarry SchardtLarry Schardt
Students who sign up for Penn State professor and motivational speaker Larry Schardt’s class, Community Sustainability and Natural Resources Conservation, are in for an unexpected dose of happiness and positivity. And it’s not just for his students. Larry never goes anywhere unnoticed. Has a man with long white hair greeted you with exuberance, the peace sign and his favorite blessing, “Rock ’n’ Roll”? If so, that was Larry. If it’s around the holidays, I bet he gave you a candy cane; in February, it would be a heart-shaped lollipop.

Larry starts and ends his day with gratitude. “The wrong side of bed is too small a space to crawl out of,” he says. Larry jumps out of bed and greets every day out loud. He ends the day by saying prayers of thanks, “because it’s important to appreciate things we might sometimes take for granted, like family, friends, the millions of healthy cells and organs in our bodies, a roof over our heads, food. There’s so much to be thankful for!”

Larry has dedicated his life to making the world a better place. And he knows how far we have to go. He grew up in Pittsburgh, the eldest of nine siblings. They were so poor the children used to rummage for scraps to burn in winter to keep warm. Yet he took to heart his mom’s favorite saying: “The best things in life aren’t things.”

Gratitude became an indelible part of his life when, knowing his family’s financial struggles, a local community group surprised him with a check to cover his first year at college. It was not a loan, but a gift, with no strings attached. That was when Larry pledged to pay it forward — and not just once. He awards the Larry Rock ’n’ Roll Scholarship annually to a student at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford who is committed to making the world a better place through helping his or her community. (The full story appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude, released earlier this year.)
When events do start to get Larry down, he tells himself he’s having a character-building day. “It creates an infinitely more powerful message than having a bad day in our subconscious,” he says.

Larry is penning his life approach to motivate others in a book titled Success that Rocks! He names gratitude as one of what he calls the three master keys of happiness and success. “If we could all learn to live in gratitude, I believe we could achieve world peace,” he says. “Gratitude is living with love, and we all know… All you need is love!”

For Lisa Davis, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health and outreach associate professor of health policy and administration at Penn State, gratitude is all about people. At a recent Ignite session with her fellow directors of rural health from around the country, she spoke about her mother, grandmothers, great-grandmother and even the biological mother of her daughter. “I am so grateful to all these people, every day,” she said. “I want to do right by them.” If they could see her now, she says she would want them to say, “You did what we wanted you to be able to do.”

Not that gratitude comes easily to Lisa. It’s too easy to get distracted by “champagne complaints,” as she calls concerns with material things. But she knows how lucky she was to be born in a country without boundaries, in a family that knew the value of hard work, ethics, a good education, of having people who stood behind her. “I am the recipient of all that and I don’t want to squander it.”

Lisa’s grandfather provided the sole male role model among the many women in her formative years; her father left when she was 2. As an adult, she tracked her father down only for him to disappear again. But she didn’t give up. The second time she found him, she asked what she’d done wrong. He admitted he was the one in the wrong. “You are wonderful,” he said. This time they didn’t lose touch.

Lisa thinks of gratitude as a multiplier. When she reaches for gratitude, it enhances any other emotion she might be feeling, which might be joy or might be sorrow. Gratitude is reward in its own right. When Lisa’s father died, she felt intense sadness, but she felt intense gratitude because she had not held onto a grudge. She had kept searching for him, she had taken destiny by the horns, she had done what mattered.

Lisa encourages her daughter, Rachel, to experience gratitude. Lisa and her husband adopted Rachel from an orphanage in Russia. If she’d stayed at the orphanage, on her 18th birthday, she would have been shown the door, with no skills, no education, no hope. Most in that position end up on the wrong side of the law. Lisa feels immense gratitude that this will not happen to her daughter, but she’s quick to add that she doesn’t want Rachel to feel indebted over this blessing. “It’s her life; she chooses what she is grateful for,” she says.

She also teaches Rachel that it’s OK to have bad days. In fact, Lisa herself reaches more and more frequently for gratitude. She feels tired. But knowing she has choices, knowing how life can be hard, helps her choose gratitude. “To know sacrifice makes our awareness of what we have, what we can accomplish, all the greater.”

Gratitude is something that JD Dunbar, CEO of Penn State Extension’s Rural-Urban Leadership Program (RULE) and international speaker on leadership and communications skills, preaches and practices daily.

“It is no small measure,” she says. “It is every measure.”

JD has dedicated her life to elevating people, whether that’s leaders at a presentation or a window cleaner she happens to meet on campus. Her approach is gentle, like a butterfly. “No one says, ‘There’s a damn butterfly! I’m getting the fly swatter,’” she says. “A butterfly can still even the most unrestful among us.

We fall silent and savor that moment. To me, a butterfly is a lift trajectory with the velocity of a rocket ship.”

JD lives intentionally with gratitude, which she says is intrinsically linked to happiness. You cannot feel one without the other.

Gratitude has been a constant since childhood. JD’s mother would spend inordinate time finding those special people most others don’t think to thank. Everyone loved her. JD’s childhood was marked by the death of her sister, Stephie, at 14. The heartbreak made her profoundly grateful for her family. “It obliges me to share positives and blurt ‘I love yous’ out loud,” she says. “Say it, feel it, mean it.”

Positivity is what JD is all about. “Time is limited. We cannot write the last page, but we can write the chapters leading up to it.” A wordsmith by trade, JD is on a mission to delete negative words from her vocabulary, even when facing the toughest challenges. Last year, she was diagnosed with melanoma.

Each time a new growth is carved away, she claims they are harvesting cells — to call it removing would mean she has become something less. When they are done, she has taken on a new form. A new “container,” as she calls her body. “I know my spirit will outlive my container,” she says.

Not immune to life’s struggles, when JD is troubled, she reviews her blessings, starting small. “By the time I make my way up to the gold mines of gratitude, I can deflect the magnitude of sadness.”

Lifting others is her superpower; her science is affirmation, her tools an arsenal of tributes. She strives to be authentic in expression, genuine and constant. “If you tell someone who looks outstanding that they are luminous, they begin to radiate,” she says. “Every person I have ever known needs to feel that they are somebody.” She even claims mini-relationships with people she meets on plane flights. “If they go away smiling, I know that for that moment, I made a difference.”

JD has been developing leaders for three decades, inspiring them to exercise gratitude and to pass it on. And so, through a shining network of leaders, flight companions and window cleaners, when her container is done, there will be an army of others already radiating her spirit. Which they will pass on, to shine brightly for ages to come.

FILLING A NEEDEvelyn WaldEvelyn Wald
Evelyn Wald says gratitude focuses you in on the good things. It brings joy and meaning to life. “It is a lot of ‘wow’ moments,” she says.

It became an active part of her daily spiritual practice when she read Living in Gratitude by Angeles Arrien, which taught her to write five things every day in a gratitude journal. She always finds five, even on the worst of the bad days. Because she practices gratitude, she is normally in good spirits, but if her mood does turn, she reminds herself: “That’s not how I want to be in this day.”

Evelyn is a grief counselor. She works with The Individual and Family CHOICES Program and TIDES, a support group for grieving children she co-founded. She puts great value on gratitude in her work with people who are grieving. “We need to remember that even in the midst of sadness and grief, we need joy,” she says. She encourages grievers to tell stories about their loved ones. “People need to recognize what they have lost, but not to the exclusion of what they have not lost.”

Evelyn didn’t plan to become a grief counselor. “There was no such thing in those days.” Those days were when her father died from cancer. Evelyn was 19. Her mother took her own life six years later. Even her priest struggled. “I love you, but I don’t think I’d know what to do to help you,” he said. Looking back, she recognizes that not finding help was the first seed of wanting to help others.

An ordained minister, Evelyn moved from her native New York City to serve at a ministry in Howard, Pennsylvania, where she earned a reputation for burying people, because she had a gift for helping people at the end of their lives.

She learned that, overwhelmingly, people have a perfect vision of dying at home surrounded by people who care. This is how Evelyn evolves: she recognizes a need, and she pursues it. This led her to found the House of Care in State College for people without means at the end of life. It was a hard process at first. But helpers began to appear. Hundreds of them. Whenever Evelyn felt she couldn’t cope, someone came along to remind her she was supposed to do it. She felt the magnitude of gratitude. And the people who have lived and died at the home have touched her life in ways she cannot express.

Her greatest reward comes from the fact that people trust in her at their time of greatest need. That is what she is most grateful for. “It’s a reciprocal thing,” she says. “They thank me, but I am the one who is grateful for their trust.”

“I’m certainly not grateful my parents died when I was in my twenties,” she says. But she is grateful for the gift of transformation that resulted within her. “If everyone felt that kind of gratitude, it would change the world.” •SCM

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