Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney warming up to sing Counting Your Blessings from White Christmas
“You should be grateful!”
We’ve all heard those words, most often when we weren’t in the mood to listen. We’ve scolded ourselves for not being grateful - also, most likely, when gratitude wasn’t coming easily.
Yet gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for building spiritual resilience. Gratitude actually holds the power to nudge us away from depression and anxiety and toward greater peace with our world.
So What Exactly Is Gratitude?
Gratitude is not the same as appreciation, although appreciation is a good first step. When we appreciate something or someone we stop to notice, to pay attention. We take the opportunity to register and savor the awesomeness of the moment. Appreciation is taking time to notice just how cool someone or something is.
Gratitude looks further to the source of the goodness. When I appreciate a plate of lasagna, I take a good look at it, I smell the delicious aroma, I pay attention to what’s on my fork and in my mouth without being overly distracted by what’s going on in the room. I appreciate the meal but I’m not considering how the meal got to my plate.
When I’m grateful I also acknowledge the cook’s skill and the time invested in preparing the meal. I can grow my circle of gratitude to include those who grew the ingredients and transported them to my grocery store. If I dig even deeper I can expand my scope to include the planet that sustains my life and ultimately to the One who created it all.
The online Oxford Dictionary goes one step further, defining gratitude as thankfulness and “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Pretty powerful plate of lasagna.
Simply telling ourselves or our kids to be grateful doesn’t often make much difference. On the other hand, consciously shifting our attention toward the blessings in our lives can. I used to ask my high school students to list fifty things they were grateful for. I knew if they wrote a short list they would probably get stuck in clichés, but as they stretched to fill those last twenty slots their lists became much more interesting.I will never forget one student’s entry. She’d been injured as an infant while in the care of a negligent babysitter, and her beautiful face bore a noticeable scar even after several surgeries. On her list, without any explanation, was, “My scar.” I was humbled by her wisdom.
A Gratitude Practice
A spiritual practice is a concrete action we engage in on a regular basis in order to bring ourselves back to what's real. There are lots of ways to establish a practice of gratitude. You could make your own list of 50 and review it frequently, but most of us will forget, lose the list, get bored and figure it all takes too much time.
An alternative is to choose a time or event that happens regularly in your day, such as a meal, getting up in the morning, commuting to work, etc. Pick one recurring event and commit to thanking God in that moment for at least five people or things in your life. If possible, take time to really be present to each item on your list. Try to focus long enough that the gratitude actually registers on a feeling level. Pick a "target frequency" - say five times a week, and then give it your best shot.
There's actually research out there saying a gratitude practice can make you happier. Check it out if you don't believe me. You don’t have to take their word for it either. Give it a try for two weeks and see what happens. Then write and let us know how it goes.
A long time ago, when Sigmund Freud first started talking about the inner workings of the human mind, the conversation was pretty grim. Attention focused on what was wrong with people: hysteria, neuroses, complexes, fixations. For decades psychologists and psychoanalysts worked earnestly to help clients rid themselves of these sometimes-crippling disorders. As psychology fought to be taken seriously, researchers carefully studied a wide range of human dysfunction, offering important new insights to the world.
Which was good, but in hindsight a little lopsided. Around twenty-five years ago a few rebels started noticing that very little was being said about the positive aspects of human nature. Research on qualities like altruism, love or joy was almost nonexistent, and positive emotions were rarely mentioned in the professional literature. In time the field of “positive psychology” was born, and new research heralded our capacity for resilience, compassion and healing.
About ten years ago I stumbled across an article written by Dr. George Vaillant, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Vaillant pointed out the existence of what he called “spiritual emotions.” He noted that spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, joy, awe, trust, love and hope all direct us beyond our own survival toward something greater. He drew on the work of Barbara Frederickson, who points out that such emotions prompt us to cooperate with others to create new and better solutions. Fear, on the other hand, causes us to narrow our focus and grow rigid and reactive in our thinking.
The article caught my attention and I’ve returned to it many times. Vaillant offered me a new vantage point for responding to our troubled times. These days when I look at religious or political institutions I see structures in trouble. Those structures are essential to life together, especially when we live together in large groups. But when they get unbalanced they can be like an overloaded freight train rounding a curve too fast. We’re seeing a lot of high-speed teetering these days.
If dogma and institutions are the bones and muscles of religion, I would see spiritual emotions as the heart and circulatory system. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can’t live without bones or muscles, but we also can’t expect femurs or biceps to feed themselves. Spiritual emotions provide the energy and healing power we need to keep us going.
George Vaillant is now in his eighties and graciously carries the wisdom of age. Over the years his message has become ever more focused: the foundation of human thriving is love. He reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct rather than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we are often, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy.”
Vaillant sums it up, “Happiness is the cart. Love is the horse.”
Click here for his TED talk.
Photo credit: Jaroom Photography, Flickr
Common wisdom used to claim our intellects were supposed to conquer our emotions, and certainly we’ve all gotten into trouble by being carried away with anger or captivated by some temporary obsession. But emotions also inspire people to great things, and researchers have recently discovered emotions play a central role in our so-called “intellectual” capacity to figure things out and remember.
So emotions are a mixed bag, and we experience conflicting emotions all day long. How do we sort them out, especially on the spur of the moment? How do we know what we’re “supposed to” feel? I’ve been puzzling over this question for a long time, and finally came up with a way to think about emotions. I believe they fall roughly into the following four categories:
Positive spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, awe, joy trust, hope, love, inspiration
Painful spiritual emotions like grief and contrition
Survival emotions: anger, fear and desire
Counterproductive emotions: resentment, anxiety and depression
Each category has distinctive characteristics and invites a different response. We’ll focus on positive spiritual emotions for the moment.
So What Is A Positive Spiritual Emotion?
Spiritual emotions occur when we transcend our own small selves and connect intuitively and emotionally with our deepest selves, other people, and/or God. Think of someone you would consider spiritually great. This person may or may not belong to your faith tradition, if you have one. You probably don’t agree with everything they say or do. They may not possess all of the qualities in our first list above, but most likely they’re strong in at least a couple. They’re buoyed not just be their convictions but also by a mysterious inner state.
That inner state or spiritual emotions can prompt us to take action or result from an outside circumstance. Sometimes we take action based on a surge of gratitude or compassion; other times a sunset or a baby’s laugh brings on gratitude and we just hold it - or are distracted and pass it by.
We’ve all had the experience of white-knuckling through a tough decision, overriding our emotional response every step of the way in order to live faithful to our convictions. Those moments are admirable and important. They’re also really hard to sustain. How do we shift our insides to a place where our emotional default not only feels better but also helps us be the person we want to be?
We can’t manufacture spiritual emotions, but we can cultivate them. We can choose activities and situations where we catch them from other people. We can become more aware of habits that steer us toward unproductive emotions like anxiety, resentment or depression. We can develop - but never guarantee - our capacity to receive them by grace from God.
Because we need them. And the world needs us.
Photo credit: Josh Sullivan, Flikr