For years in the field of psychology we have studied the symptoms and conditions of mental illness. We have learned about depression and anxiety. We understand the conditions that promote or put one at higher risk for mental illness.
Several years ago, it occurred to some that if we can learn the conditions that put one at risk for mental illness, we could also learn and study the conditions that promote happiness and an overall sense of well-being. Thus, the field of positive psychology was born.
From this research, we know one of the things that promotes a feeling of all-is-right-with-the-world is living with an attitude of gratitude.
We seem to think that anything less than being perfectly happy is undesirable. We find it easier to be thankful for the good things that happen to us or for the nice things we have than for the bad things that happen or our darker moods that may come due to life’s challenges.
How often are we thankful for our trials?
Gratitude is a way for us to understand that living life completely includes being thankful for the hard times that are bound to come as well as the blessings and the beauty that is all around us. We can have radical gratitude for the things that try us and make us stronger and we can have simple gratitude for the daily blessings in our life.
An Attitude of Gratitude
When my children were young, after teaching a family lesson on gratitude, we put up a sign that said, “Have an Attitude of Gratitude.” I was truly amazed at the difference in our family after a few short weeks.
There were more thank you’s, less fighting, and a general shift in everyone’s attitude. Even in the smallest things (like meals) gratitude was expressed from the receiver. The giving became more fun, and the children were more excited to try to please someone else. We taught another lesson called “The Secret Giver.”
The kids picked names of a person they could serve in secret. Again, it was amazing how gratitude and those acts of kindness worked together. I think this was a profound lesson to all of us.
We are all taught to be thankful, and for many, it is a natural state of mind. However, it is easy to forget how fortunate we really are. In today’s society, the media expounds on the goal of getting more. We need a bigger house, a newer car, a better body, and of course, more money. As we get caught up in the more mentality we lose track of what we have–including the simplest of pleasures like a sunny day or even a rainy day.
Thomas Moore showed tremendous wisdom when he said, “The soul presents itself in a variety of colors, including all the shades of gray, blue, and black. To care for the soul we must observe the full range of all its colorings and resist the temptation to approve only of the white, red, and orange–the brilliant colors.” He goes on to say that a symptom of this is seen when people today want to colorize old black and white movies, which is “consistent with our culture’s general rejection of the dark and the gray.”
Can we be grateful for depression, sadness, anger, and frustration? I think so. It is not the ‘dark’ feelings that are the problem; it’s the attitude we have about those feelings. I believe in a simple concept: all feelings come, and all feelings go. This is true if we allow ourselves to feel the feelings instead of resisting them.
There is a mistaken belief that some of the darker emotions are bad, and we should not feel them. This single belief has been the cause of more pain and suffering than we could ever imagine.
Let’s take a look at small children to see how it could work for us.
I observed a situation at the park with two small children where they both wanted to ride on the swing. They immediately started to angrily fight over the swing. Pretty soon, a parent stepped in and suggested they take turns. She allowed them to decide who was first, and they stopped fighting.
Soon they were playing together–laughing and having a great time. I t could have come to blows, but a wise parent stepped in and let them problem solve. This took the energy of anger and turned it back into a happy situation.
The anger itself was only an indicator of a conflict that was easily solved. We truly can feel strong and dark emotions and not act in the destructive ways that we have come to associate with them. We can truly be thankful for the message the feeling gives us.
Simple gratitude is the ability to be grateful for little things. A kind word or a pleasant smile can make all the difference in a day.
When I get up, I think about the opportunity I have to live one more day. I am grateful just to be here. It’s a simple thing, but it makes a big difference in my life.
Again, it is through watching children that we can learn this principle. When my small grandson found an abandoned hornets’ nest, he brought it to show me what he had found. He was enthralled by the complex series of cubicles that the hornets had made. When was the last time you took a walk and noticed all the little things around you that are nature’s miracles?
My youngest daughter is another example to me of living with simple gratitude. She has taken to what she calls ‘birding.’ We took a trip to southern Utah, and she insisted we stop at a popular birding site on the way.
On our trips, we usually hurry to get where we are going. This simple act of stopping on the way, taking out our binoculars, spotting various birds, and looking them up in our “birding” book was an extraordinary experience. Through the course of the trip we identified about fifty different kinds of birds and found several that were uncommon to that vicinity.
I now notice birds in our yard or while taking a walk. This activity helped me be grateful for nature and the things around me that can add so much to my daily life.
Several years ago, I attended a therapy conference where we learned how consistent simple gratitude significantly increases one’s sense of well-being. Upon returning home, I determined to notice the small things each day.
I remember changing the oil in my car and feeling grateful that my dad taught me that skill, grateful for my stove while fixing dinner, and grateful for the air conditioning on a very hot summer day. The simple act of mentally saying a statement of gratitude for my daily experiences brought a deep feeling of peace.
Andrew Bienkowski coined the term “radical gratitude.” As a small child, he was sent to the Siberian camps where many of the educated and wealthy Polish people were sent during World War II. There he learned to have gratitude for the trials that befell him.
His experience helped him recognize that, while it may seem radical, we can be grateful for our trials and tribulations and the various moods that may come as a result. Many times you hear people say they really didn’t like a trial while it was happening, but they are glad it happened because of what they learned as a result.
There is an an episode of Star Trek Next Generation where Captain Jean Luc Picard was transported back to an event where he was stabbed in the heart during a brawl as he tried to defend his comrades in an act of great courage. When given a second chance to do it over, he cowered back instead of fighting to help his comrades–a cowardly act of fear.
He was fast forwarded to the present again where he was an Ensign instead of the Captain. Many things that happen to us build character and help us become better people.
I do not mean you should say, “Hooray! I’m sure glad I just had this car accident,” but I am suggesting that our attitudes can be much healthier if we assume that what will come from our trials will make us stronger or give us insight that we previously did not have.
I know a young woman who used gratitude to help her cope with the news that her father had cancer. Of course she wasn’t glad her dad had cancer.
However, she realized that nothing she could do would change the fact that her dad might die. She realized that focusing on the negative aspects of the situation would only make a hard situation worse, so she tried to find something to be grateful for.
She realized that she was grateful for the kind of person her father was. “He was a good man. He raised me well. I have many wonderful memories through the years. I could have had a father who was never home, abusive, or distant. Some people don’t even know their fathers.”
As she focused on what she could find to be grateful for, the pain became easier to bear. Instead of wallowing in misery, she was grateful for the time she had. It didn’t change the situation, but by choosing to approach it with gratitude, her pain was lessened.
An attitude of gratitude can change your life. When we reflect on simple pleasures or are grateful for the difficult experiences and emotions, it helps to lessen our culture’s increasing dependency on more. We can be detached from the hardships and recognize their hand in giving us wisdom and knowledge that we can apply as we grow and develop and care for the soul.
Thomas Moore states, “Care of the soul requires our appreciation of these ways it presents itself. Faced with depression, we might ask ourselves, ‘What is it doing here? Does it have some necessary role to play?’ . . . . Even further, we may have to develop a taste for the depressed mood, a positive respect for its place in the soul’s cycles.”
Life is full of blessings and hardships. We have a range of emotions given to us to help us navigate through our life, and an attitude of gratitude will help us appreciate all aspects of our lives and free us from the bondage of more.