My Facebook feed this summer included a steady stream of lists from friends who accepted one of the numerous gratitude challenges circulating social media spheres. I read their posts with curious interest, but I secretly hoped I wouldn't be asked to take on the challenge, too!
Sharing gratitude in an open forum can sometimes come off as trite. Besides, people seem to be popping gratitude like it's the latest wonder drug. A recent Salon.com article addresses the current Western trend toward gratitude and mindfulness as a kind of "spiritual meritocracy," or spirituality lite. The author writes:
You know what I'm talking about. When I go to yoga, I'm often surrounded by wealthy white women who can afford expensive classes and Lululemon threads. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see exclamations of bourgeois spirituality ("Staying at the Waldorf tonight! #gratitude #blessed #100happydays #livelife").
The author continues:
We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures. (Think "The Secret.")
Still, gratitude carries benefits that far outweigh the trivial, or gratitude for the sake of gain, which defeats the purpose. I've written blogs about its benefits and I've read plenty of them, too. I've also experienced the great healing benefit of expressing gratitude.
Gratitude has a way of awakening one's spiritual sensibilities and feelings of closeness to the divine. Its close cousin is contentment, as the Scriptures remind:
"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are -- no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought" (Matthew 5, The Message).
Current studies certainly point to the benefits of gratitude when it comes to well-being.
Robert Emmons, Ph.D., and professor at the University of California - Davis, studies gratitude, its causes and impact on human health. In his book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Emmons found that grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism -- i.e., less depression and stress. He concluded that a disciplined practice of gratitude "protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness."
Those who regularly attended a church service or prayer group were also more likely to be grateful. And a life of gratitude was linked to less emphasis on materiality and the accumulation of things to make one happy. ("The Science of Gratitude")
I've found that gratitude can be most beneficial when it feels as though there's nothing to be grateful for. In those dark moments, I've gotten better at detecting a deceptive view of my circumstances and focusing on the good instead.
A quote I've committed to memory from my practice of Christian Science guides my prayers: "Are we really grateful for the good already received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more. Gratitude is much more than a verbal expression of thanks. Action expresses more gratitude than speech" (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures).
Gratitude isn't a self-help mechanism. It's a living prayer, a springboard to action and to higher motives for living. Even if it means beginning with appreciating the obvious things, like cute pets and a cloudless day, as our gratitude list grows to be more substantial, it moves from the trivial to the transformational.
Gratitude is a habit of thought we can all cultivate, and this season of giving thanks is the perfect reminder.