In her mid-20s, Sara Hagerty didn't seem to have much to be grateful for.
Her husband's business was in trouble, and that brought financial problems. Her father was diagnosed with cancer, from which he later died.
And marriage difficulties were compounded when Hagerty, now 37, learned she and her husband would have to deal with infertility issues.
For someone who'd become a committed Christian at age 15 and expected to charge through life "running harder and faster and more intact for God on the Earth," this reversal of fortunes seemed the absolute antithesis. The run slowed to a crawl, it seems. The notion of being "more intact" seemed a mockery when her most personal desire seemed a remote possibility.
And yet, gratitude surfaced in the midst of hardship, as it often seems to when life's trajectory doesn't match our highest hopes.
"I can't put a timeline on it, but somewhere in the middle there, when I started to realize that God was inviting me into a deeper encounter with him, even though my circumstances weren't changing, there was a gratitude that wouldn't be shaken by my circumstance," Hagerty said this week from her home in Kansas City, Missouri. "I've found God here and nothing can shake my gratitude for what he's given me, in himself."
Gratitude is a quality Americans seem to embrace. A 2013 survey by the John Templeton Foundation for the University of California at Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center found more than 90 percent agreed that grateful people are more fulfilled, lead richer lives, and are more likely to have friends." Only 1 percent said they believed gratitude is unnecessary.
"If we're always following our immediate desire for fulfillment or pleasure or making more money, it never stops, you never really get satisfied," said Steven Kepnes, a Jewish theologian and religion department chairman at Colgate University. "A theology of gratitude allows you to be happy with what you have."
Gratitude spans faiths
Being grateful is something that crosses many religious boundaries. Every morning, observant Jews rise and pray the Modeh Ani, Hebrew for "I give thanks," Kepnes said.
The Modeh prayer is a simple one, addressed from the believer to God: "I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great."
It's part of a morning liturgy, Kepnes said, that daily makes the case for believers appreciating God's work.
"Judaism, in the structure of the (morning) prayer, specifically lays out, takes you through the big picture reasons why Jews should be grateful," he said. And expressing that gratitude — which is something on which Christians, Jews and Muslims can agree, he said — is a countercultural act these days.
Being grateful offers "a different perspective from our consumer society, where we feel like the world and our friends and our parents and indeed our country owes us something, and we're consumers and we're kind of in control and expect to be served," Kepnes said. "The perspective of the Bible is quite the opposite. We're humble creatures, we're quite small in comparison to the all-powerful God."
Kepnes suggested societal attitudes of consumerism may be responsible for less visible gratitude. "I guess you could say it not only is a result of a non-religious society, but even the types of religion many of our people are attracted to are religions that 'give' to us — a feeling of exuberance or exhilaration, some sort of spiritual/material content," he said. In his local synagogue, some members complain about paying membership dues, believing perhaps "the lights should come on, the building should be there of itself."
When seeking to be grateful, Kepnes explained, satisfaction in life is likely to increase. And, he added, what we have, however modest one's circumstances, is spectacular.
"Judaism tries to inculcate a mysticism of the everyday," Kepnes said. "Every day, no matter how bad the day, there's some positive experience … just coming home and seeing your family and friends, these are moments where you can pause and be grateful."
'Cures all ills'
Christian author Bob Hostetler, who has said his forthcoming book, "The Red Letter Prayer Life",will include a chapter on prayers of gratitude, believes "gratitude is such a powerful emotion, it's actually the cure for a lot of what ails us."
Hostetler said making a commitment to write three "prayers of gratitude" in a daily journal before going to bed "helped me crawl out of a fairly deep clinical depression a few years ago." He suggested gratitude "can cure discouragement and depression, stress, bitterness and self-pity — especially for us 21st century people."
By expressing gratitude for the good and bad that life brings, "I actually benefit," he said. Being grateful lets Hostetler "get outside of myself" and be blessed.
And Steve McSwain, a former pastor and Huffington Post religion blogger said, "The spontaneous and sometimes conscious response we make to the awareness life is (the) gift" that defines gratitude.
For McSwain, who's also a stewardship counselor based in Louisville, Kentucky, gratitude doesn't consist of "running around handing out $100 bills," but rather in how you treat the people you come into contact with.
"I don't believe you teach people how to be grateful," he said. "I think you help channel the gratitude they already feel."
Hagerty, whose 2014 book borrows its title from the Old Testament book of Proverbs — "Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet" — has seen her life dramatically change since those troubled times of financial, health and marital stress.
She's a mother of five (four adopted from Ethiopia and Uganda) ranging in age from 10 to 1, her marriage is on solid ground and while life is not devoid of challenges, she seems to have come through the fire to find fulfillment on the other side. In the process, a prayer she and her husband of 13 years each prayed separately, to experience "more" of God, has been answered, she said.
"I don't think gratitude can operate independent from the nature of God and who he is in his word," Hagerty explained. "We can't really know the depths of gratitude without knowing the source."
And her gratitude includes thanks for a deeper appreciation of God's nature. "I don't know that I would have known this beautiful side of God if I had not seen everything else around me go dark," Hagerty said.