Improved Gratitude

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel…”—Maya Angelou

Need to jump-start your attitude towards Thanksgiving? Exciting research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley and A Network for Grateful Living confirms and enlarges what our religious traditions or intuitions may have already told us about gratitude.

As the former points out, in an article by “gratitude guru” Robert Emmons (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu) North Americans, raised on a steady diet of self-reliance,  don’t like to feel indebted or dependent. But the science of gratitude demonstrates how to appreciate that we’re often given more than we deserve. Recognizing gifts from outside ourselves, including our very life from God, and all that others contribute is the antidote to entitlement.

Focusing on the positive is not a Pollyanna-ish “superficial happiology,” or mere politeness, but an ongoing perspective with transformative power. A classic example of reframing by looking for the positive in a negative experience is Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and later murdered by the Nazis. His focus on the good was so strong he could write from jail, “gratitude changes pangs of memory into grateful joy.” So too St. Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. turned obstacle to opportunity, doing some of their best writing in prison.

For most people, circumstances won’t be as dramatic. But at the end of life, do we want to be bitterly cursing the incompetent nurse, or grateful we have medical care and a warm bed? Those attitudes are sown and practiced early, not simply popping up on the deathbed. Humans are remarkably adaptive, even to good things, so we need to cultivate the habit of looking for, and commenting on, our blessings.

Before Emmons, Brother David Steindl-Rast had explored the more spiritual side of the subject in Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness (Paulist, 1984). Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, he was drafted into the Nazi army as a boy, but escaped and was hidden by his mother until the war ended–which must’ve made him intensely grateful. He defines joy as “a happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” Gratitude gives the ability to take whatever comes and appreciate it. During an “On Being” podcast, Krista Tippett asked him what he was most grateful for in dark times. He responded immediately: “the next breath!”

A Benedictine monk, he co-founded A Network for Grateful Living, whose website is rich in articles, suggestions, reflection questions and practices of gratitude: https://gratefulness.org. One sample quote from Steindl-Rast: “When I am grateful, I am neither rushing nor slouching through my day – I’m dancing.” A beautiful example of the attitude he upholds is the poem on the website: “Following Treatment, I Wonder” by Terry Martin. Despite the aches, pains and exhaustion of chemotherapy, the poet is grateful for a bowl of crunchy granola made by a friend, the neighbor’s crowing rooster, Chagall’s art, the sun.

Jesus once said, “Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap” (Lk. 6:38). Now science proves the generous measure used for giving will return to us in chemical bodily responses, perpetuating the cycle of gratitude.

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