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November 18, 2012: “Gratitude”

This morning, a couple of thoughts on gratitude:

First, I have learned recently that far from being just a cliché or a sentimental topic left over from quaint yesteryear, gratitude has become the stuff of modern science and psychology. The University of California at Berkley, for example, is in the midst of a multimillion dollar study on the science of gratitude, looking at changes in brain chemistry and other physical, measurable changes that occur in people who intentionally incorporate specific gratitude practices into their lives. If you are interested, the particulars are available on a website called “The Science of Gratitude.” And the University of California is not alone. Indeed, there is lots of NIH funded research occurring on the power of gratitude to improve well being for individuals as well as for organizational climates. It seems to relate closely to things like Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology, both movements that suggest that there is reason to begin analysis of any entity, be it an individual’s psyche or an organization’s culture, by looking first for what is positive, what is healthy and strong whole, and working well in that entity, rather than approaching assessments always by looking for the problems, always starting with what’s wrong or broken or lacking. Indeed, in helping hospice patients do life review, and deal with unfinished business with family members, I have found it so helpful to employ this philosophy. It establishes love and gratitude as the context, reduces defensiveness, and usually leads far more effectively to reconciliation than a “start with the negative” approach would have. Starting with a climate of gratitude, changes outcomes.

But gratitude is not just practical, and scientifically verifiable. Secondly, I have learned along the way that the conscious cultivation of gratitude is good for our souls. For one thing, it increases humility. It reminds us that we did not come to where we are in life entirely on our own. Most of us have had advantages and help along the way, even if just the advantage of good genes or a quick mind or a resilient personality. It has been said that gratitude is a function not of how much we have, but rather of how much we have relative to how much we feel we deserve. If we feel entitled to the blessings in our lives, it presumes we achieved them all on our own. But as our earlier reading reminded us, we could have been anyone, anywhere, at any time in history. So while a healthy sense of pride is perfectly appropriate regarding our accomplishments, really, maybe we need to remember a little more often that but for the tiniest turn of the destiny dial, or whatever you want to call it, it easily could have been otherwise. And perhaps, just perhaps, the world, or at least my world, can limp along on occasion without benefit of my considered opinion or judgment or entitlement.

Indeed, gratitude is a close sibling to humility. And the leavening combination of the two makes us far more bearable as people, both to others and I think, to ourselves. Says Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. “Experiencing and expressing gratitude is an important part of any spiritual practice. It opens the heart and activates positive emotion centers in the brain. Regular practice of gratitude can change the way our brain neurons fire into more positive automatic patterns. The positive emotions it evokes can soothe distress and broaden our thinking patterns so we develop a larger and more expansive view of our lives. Gratitude is an emotion of connectedness, which reminds us we are part of a larger universe with all living things.” And from Johannes A. Gaertner ” To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” And still more concisely, from Ralph H. Blum, “there is a calmness to a life lived in Gratitude, a quiet, palpable joy.”

And so I am suggesting today that we cultivate a general, spiritual posture of living from gratitude. This is not about just adding the perfunctory “thank you” to a good deed rendered on your behalf. It’s about really learning to notice, and really learning to linger, over the good stuff in life…the simple blessings and delights along the way, and the good we see in one another. We need intentionally to cultivate this as we do other disciplines and habits, by decision and effort, by training ourselves to look for specific things for which to be grateful, and then by stopping to savor them. I am not suggesting here that we become Pollyannas, that we ignore the pain and suffering when they come. Indeed they need to be named and faced. But in the long run, I think we can counter-balance the pain, by learning to linger over the joy, by learning not to take it for granted, by learning to oil the machinery of life with this gladsome, leavening balm .

I think I have said this before, but one of the simplest, yet most effective spiritual disciplines I have ever practiced is to take time at the beginning or end of each day to look for five things for which I then linger in gratitude. It seems to pack more punch to be as specific as possible. So instead of naming “my family”, I’d suggest ferreting out one particular moment or interaction with one particular family member. Instead of saying “my home”, I might say “that ten minute interlude where I just sat by the fire and stared out at the falling snow.” I know it sounds simplistic, even trite. But it is mindfulness of these simple moments, savoring these simplicities, that can most fill us with a fresh, new awareness of humility and joy and even awe at the magnanimous generosity of life. It is amazing the power this simple practice has to change the way we perceive, and therefore experience, our lives.

And so I would like to close these thoughts by asking you to take a moment now to call to mind something or someone or some situation where you have particular gratitude. Think about the particulars involved, the specific parts and pieces, open your heart to it, and let the feelings involved wash over you.