Miami-Dade County

At FIU interfaith event, gratitude can be therapeutic

Marifeli Perez-Stable, in the red jacket, and Ozlem Pala, in the blue jacket, serve themselves Thanksgiving fare during an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the South Florida branch of the Atlantic Institute Sunday night at Florida International University.
Marifeli Perez-Stable, in the red jacket, and Ozlem Pala, in the blue jacket, serve themselves Thanksgiving fare during an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the South Florida branch of the Atlantic Institute Sunday night at Florida International University. For the Herald

You know that Thanksgiving tradition where everyone goes around the table saying what they’re thankful for?

Well, Kelli Romano and her family do something similar every night.

“It’s something we actually do with our daughter. Every night, as a family, we say one thing that we’re grateful for from that day,” said Romano, 34, of Biscayne Park. “It’s something we’ve done every night since she could talk.”

The Romanos’ nighttime ritual was a topic of discussion during an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner Sunday night. Some 85 people attended the inaugural Thanksgiving event at Florida International University, hosted by the Atlantic Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes diversity.

“Our key goal is to bring people from different cultures and different traditions together,” said Cengiz Zopluoglu, outreach coordinator with the Atlantic Institute’s South Florida branch.

Before dining on homemade Thanksgiving fare, members of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, along with members of various Christian denominations, talked about the importance of giving thanks.

“Thanksgiving is how we are to live our daily lives,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurinda “Laurie” Hafner of the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ.

The importance of giving thanks isn’t just something encouraged by religious doctrine — it’s also backed by science. Robert Emmons, a Ph.D. and psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, is one of the foremost experts on gratitude; his research has shown that expressing gratitude can improve a person’s emotional and physical health, and can make one happier.

Gratitude can be logged in several ways, such as keeping a gratitude journal, saying prayers of gratitude, or even taking photos of things that you’re grateful for and sharing them with friends via social media.

“The key is to draw attention to the sources of goodness in our lives,” said Emmons via email. “You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar. The important thing is to establish the daily habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events.”

Paying regular attention to the people and things for which you are grateful is akin to working out, he says.

“The benefits will be maintained if the gratitude muscles stay flexed,” Emmons said. “Gratitude is like a muscle — it is made stronger by use.”

As a Muslim, Aslihan Akkaya says she often thinks about gratitude while performing daily prayers, which she does five times a day.

“Today, I am thankful to have friends from different faith traditions and to share a meal with them,” said Akkaya, 34, of Pembroke Pines, who attended Sunday’s service. Interfaith events, she noted, help “you see there are different ways of doing things, not just one way. And that makes you more open minded. It also makes you happy.”

The Rev. Joseph Lucas from Christ the Saviour Orthodox Cathedral in Miami Lakes said Thanksgiving holds significance in the Orthodox tradition, as special prayers are recited during the holiday.

“[Thanksgiving is] the very root of our theology, the very core of our being and our message,” said Lucas, who touched on the history of Thanksgiving in the Orthodox faith. “It became a religious holiday for us.”

Members of other religious groups also delivered prayers and messages about blessings, appreciation and compassion. They encouraged those in the audience to show gratitude in their daily lives.

Victor Romano, Kelli’s husband, said he sees the benefit of expressing gratitude regularly.

“I think it’s a nice way to end the day,” said Victor Romano, 35.

According to Emmons “how often” a person expresses gratitude doesn’t matter as much as “how” that gratitude is expressed.

“For example, to simply say that ‘I am grateful to my wife,’ is less gratitude inducing than for me to consciously and deliberately try to think about the countless hours of hard work in which she took care of our home and our boys so that I can do what I do,” Emmons wrote in an email.

So, when it’s your turn to say what you’re thankful for today, acknowledge what you’re grateful for — be it family, friends, no traffic on I-95, or even finding a close parking spot at the mall — but make sure to give a specific answer.

It’s good for you.

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