As a teenager in Ghana, George Mwinnyaa fell seriously ill. After sacrificing three chickens to the gods, he miraculously healed. Now a student of public health at Johns Hopkins University, he doesn’t think it was the sacrifice itself that saved him. He thinks it was the act of giving thanks.
Growing up, Mwinnyaa’s father religiously sacrificed three chickens every week. It was how he gave thanks to the rivers, mountains, ancestors, and gods for the health of his 7 wives and 32 children.
Sacrifice was a way of life where they lived. People believed that failing to sacrifice enough could lead to drought, disease, and death. As Mwinnyaa remembers it, these beliefs seemed strangely accurate. When families offered chickens as sacrifices, their sick family members usually recovered. If they didn’t sacrifice, terrible things seemed to happen.
In his last year of high school, Mwinnyaa fell seriously ill. He was in bad shape and could not swallow water or food. Mwinnyaa’s uncle wanted answers. He rode his bicycle 6 hours to the next village to visit an oracle. The oracle told him that the river god, the god of the land, and his ancestors were angry. It had been too long since they had received thanks for blessing and protecting the family. The oracle told him that Mwinnyaa would die if they failed to appease them.
His family sacrificed three chickens. To make sure all their bases were covered, an herbalist also provided Mwinnyaa with a mixture of herbs, as well as shea butter to rub on his neck. Three days later, he was fit as a fiddle.
He is now a student of public health, and he lives with his wife and son in the United States. He says that he thinks of the experience a little differently these days. It was not the sacrifice that healed him. It was the act of feeling and giving thanks.
Mwinnyaa may be on to something. According to research, grateful people generally feel healthier. They take better care of their bodies through exercise, eating well, and sleeping. Feeling grateful also improves psychological health. It has been shown to increase happiness while decreasing stress and depression. But that’s not all. Recent research also suggests that gratitude can prolong relationships, enhance empathy, increase self-esteem, and even help people overcome trauma. In fact, a 2003 study found that gratitude was one of the biggest contributors to people’s resilience after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The study showed that recognizing what you have to be thankful for can increase mental and emotional strength.
It seems that being thankful really can work wonders – especially when gratitude is hardest to find.