By Stephen Russell-Lacy —
Psychology research is showing that grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress and depression. An attitude of gratitude can make the difference between a life of fulfillment, or a life of emptiness.
True gratitude is more than merely saying ‘thank you’. It is not just noticing and appreciating the good qualities of a person or thing which make you pleased. Rather, the essence of the true spirit of gratitude is a positive feeling towards a benefactor and desiring to do something good in return.
Thankfulness can be seen in the humble innocence of a child. But this attitude may be lost as we grow up and adults can actually find the feeling of gratitude hard to cultivate, because it is the opposite of the normal state of self-orientation. It is very different from a striving to better one’s lot and contrary to a tendency to credit oneself for one’s successes while blaming others for one’s failures.
If you realise it is no good just waiting around to feel thankful, you will ask about what you can actually do to experience gratitude.
Finding gratitude by acknowledging unhelpful thoughts
As a child you may have been told ‘You are special’, ‘You’re number one’ and as an adult you are probably familiar with the ideas about consumer, democratic and human rights. And so having a sense of entitlement can easily be mistaken as natural and even healthy. It is not uncommon to hear about some youngsters who seem to take everything for granted.
You might think that you are the centre of things but find life doesn’t meet your needs and desires. If so you might well feel aggrieved that you are not getting what you feel you deserve.
How can one feel grateful in this state of mind? Well you can’t according to cognitive therapy- not unless you change your expectations and assumptions.
“There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet – William Shakespeare)
Is it not true that we disturb ourselves by the beliefs we hold about events?
However, you can challenge a negative habit of thinking once you have spotted it in yourself. One way of challenging aggrieved thinking is to consider the notion that the world owes you nothing: that anything good that happens to you is a gift: something extra to what one might expect which can be appreciated and enjoyed.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has” (Stoic philosopher, Epictetus)
Acting as if one already had gratitude
One exercise is to write down what is good in your life instead of what is bad. This needs to be done on a regular basis perhaps once a week.
It helps to do this by thinking about:
- What you do have, instead of what you don’t have,
- Where you are lucky, instead of where you are unlucky,
- What you love, instead of what you hate,
- Who likes you, instead of who does not,
- Where you feel empowered, instead of where you feel helpless,
- Where you feel inspired, instead of where you feel depressed.
Even if you are sceptical “once you get started, you find more and more things to be grateful for,” says Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher at the University of California at Davis.
He says gratitude doesn’t depend on circumstances. You can be grateful for just about anything that you’ve received in part because of someone or something else. You may feel grateful to your neighbour for a favour, to luck for meeting your spouse, to nature for a scenic view or to fate or a higher power for your safety. Thankfulness helps you see that you’re an object of love and care.
Gratitude as a sign of a noble soul
There is a fable by Aesop about a slave who pulls a thorn out of the paw of a lion. Some time later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The hungry lion rushes bounding and roaring toward the slave, but, upon recognizing his friend, he fawns upon him and licks his hands like a friendly dog. ‘Gratitude’, Aesop concludes, ‘is the sign of noble souls’
From a spiritual perspective, gratitude enables one to connect with something that is not only larger than oneself but also fundamentally good and reassuring. It opens our eyes to the miracle that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate, rather than ignore or take for granted as it flies us by.
Gratitude thus involves a dimension of awe, wonder or humility. Christian believers say that ultimately all good things come from the Lord God, the source of goodness, and we are helpless without this higher power active in our lives.
Gratitude in the afterlife
Emanuel Swedenborg described his visions of a heavenly afterlife. He wrote that the angels refuse all thanks from others for the good things they do. They direct all such expressions of gratitude to the Lord God. For, they say, without the Lord they could not carry out anything useful.
They are said to give a further reason for not wanting to be thanked. Doing useful things is the delight of their lives, so why should they be thanked for doing what delights them?
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.
He edits Spiritual Questions a free eZine that explores links between spiritual philosophy and the comments and questions of spiritual seekers. You can share your views and find out more about feeling good, personal well-being & spiritual healing
His eBook Heart, Head and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.