What is gratitude?
The common notion of gratitude is appreciation, or being grateful for life’s many gifts. The Bible, music, public speakers, scholars admonish us to count our blessings, to look for the silver lining, to remember that someone is worse off than you are. Appreciate what you have. Be thankful that you live in America, where even people at the poverty level live like royalty compared to most people in the third world.
Much is said about income inequality and our (temporarily dwindling) middle class. The fact is the middle class has everything the filthy rich do, just not as cool: automobile, flat screen TV, place to live, air conditioner, smart phone, nice clothing, dining out, and much more. One exception of course is the middle class does not have swimming pools for the horses.
Can gratitude improve our lives?
The answer is a resounding yes. Being appreciative is uplifting. It can cancel and replace negative thoughts. Having a great (or good) significant other; good health; a job; healthy children (preferably not in jail). Speaking of jail, I have worked at three California state prisons as a psychologist. A large percentage of the inmates are what we call “institutionalized,” meaning, this is an acceptable way of life for them. They are grateful for the roof over their heads, three meals, structure, school, vocational training, recreation, and health care. The smiles on their faces rival that of content civilians. The “born again” inmates are even happier, responding to “How are you?” by saying “I’m blessed.” More than one cynic, however, has commented that God rarely makes it out of the prison.
Be thankful for family and good friends; for nature – trees, greenery, mountains, the smell of freshly-cut lawns, the breeze in your face, your pets, or better, other people’s pets. The late physician-philosopher George Sheehan reminded us that we are animals first. Be a good animal. It is not normal for animals to sit around all day. Get outside and move!
I watch nearly 162 Giants baseball games with my wife. What a privilege and a delight?!! Not counting the cable bill, it’s free. I am grateful every day for that three hours of rich entertainment and excellence. I have a beautiful motorcycle that I rarely ride, but look at every day.
Be grateful for laughter. The literature is rife with examples of the joy and healing powers of laughter. The more the better.
The other side of gratitude
Some argue that the only true happiness in life is derived through helping others. Self-gratification is fleeting. Good deeds seem to pile up in the aggregate. Giving doesn’t just mean time, money and effort. Treating every single person you meet as the most important person in the world is profound – strangers, servers, convicts. This is mostly nonverbal: tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, saying thank you, tipping well.
Everyone has heard the Old Testament saying, “This too shall pass.” Radio talk show host and Jewish scholar Dennis Prager says he uses that phrase when things are good as well. Along with that is the notion of embracing your suffering. Suffering is a normal part of life – unpleasant, but it afflicts everyone. Accept it as a critical aspect of life. Frankie Beverly’s great song:
Joy, and pain,
Are like sunshine, and rain.
Dennis Prager also suggests we celebrate our dissatisfaction. If we are not dissatisfied, there is no incentive to improve our situation. Brilliant. How about gratitude for simply being alive? A study of the subjective sense of time revealed that the first seventeen and one-half years of one’s life feels like the next 52 and one-half years when one turns seventy. Those of you over fifty, or heaven forbid sixty, know that subjectively, a year feels like about two months! Celebrate every day, every hour, every minute, every second.
Get outside of yourself, and your preoccupation with your largely meaningless, mundane, repetitive, monotonous, inconsequential existence. Be humble, the half-life of fame is about ten years – movie stars, singers, athletes. Guess what: Michael Jordan can’t play in the NBA!
Go to the ocean. It’s almost impossible to feel bad when you are there. The looming sensations of both oneness with nature and our insignificance are in a way uplifting, and reality therapy. It’s about perspective. Know the difference between momentum (your daily routine) and purpose.
Have a spiritual connection. Spiritual people are generally happier than secularists. They feel connected to something much bigger than themselves. Spiritual people thank God every day – eternal gratitude. A Christian, for example, means being Christ-like, attempting, unsuccessfully, to emulate Him. How about love? Love is not an emotion, it is a behavior. If you love someone you do loving things for them.
The best gift of all?
Perhaps the one aspect of life for which we should be most grateful is something that does not yet exist:
Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.
Comes into us at midnight very clean.
It’s perfect when it arrives and it
Puts itself in our hand.
It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.
-John Wayne, 1971