“It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy.”
As I was cleaning up after our Thanksgiving celebration this year, I recalled these words of Catholic monk and scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast, speaking about the importance of making a daily practice of gratitude.
And thinking about that, I felt a wave of gratitude for the fact that our Federal holidays in this country include a holiday dedicated solely to the act of giving thanks.
This thought in turn got me wondering about when the ancient tradition of giving thanks for the harvest (which both the native peoples and newly-arriving immigrants shared in common in 1621 when the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in this country) became a Federal holiday in the U.S.
So I looked it up…and it turns out that President Lincoln established the holiday in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.
That was interesting: the fact that a holiday focused on gratitude was established in the middle of one of our nation’s most divisive periods of domestic conflict— a period of deep domestic conflict and division that many people believe we are experiencing in this country today.
A Google search took me to the writings of psychology professor and researcher Dr. Robert A. Emmons, who has been called “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude” (who knew there was one of those?). In his essay, “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times” Emmons, too, notes that “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.”
So what might be the connection? Emmons suggests that “When times are good, people take prosperity for granted and begin to believe that they are invulnerable. In times of uncertainty, though [when] you begin to see that everything you have, everything you have counted on, may be taken away, it becomes much harder to take it for granted.”
He goes on to make what I think is an extremely important point: that gratitude is not so much a feeling as it is a choice we have about our attitude and perspective toward our feelings and circumstances. This is different from the “you should be grateful (instead of feeling what you are feeling)” way of thinking about gratitude, which is a message many of us may remember being shamed by as children, and (admit it:) may have shamed our own kids and ourselves with, in turn. For some of us (including, for many years, me) the effect can be an actual resistance to gratitude, because of the felt- association of gratitude with invalidation of feelings of loss or distress.
In contrast, consciously choosing to face life’s challenges and losses with an “attitude of gratitude,” as Alcoholics Anonymous members remind each other, allows us to really take in and be supported by the ever-present abundance of all that also is life-giving, even as we cope with what is difficult…but without having to feel bad for having these feelings. It’s not about trying to replace “feelings” with “attitude;” rather, it’s about also being alert to and aware of what is supporting us as we cope with painful feelings or circumstances, and attentive to how those difficulties themselves might be a means also of growth and healing .
According to Emmons again, “consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether to minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals.”
Finally, the “practice of gratitude” is not only about looking for what we have received: if these are hard to find, in the midst of a trying time of life, try being aware of and grateful for all the “bad things” that aren’t happening to you, moment to moment, and of giving thanks for these! This is what I’ve come to think of as “no toothache” gratitude practice (from a teaching I heard once by Thich Nhat Han): noticing and appreciating the pain you are not suffering at the moment: a toothache, for instance.
There’s an Islamic teaching tale I love about this kind of gratitude: in the story, a Mullah (religious scholar) has a donkey, which is his most beloved and essential helper, companion, and source of livelihood all in one. When the donkey simply disappears one day, the entire village searches far and wide, but to no avail. Yet that evening the villagers are surprised to find the Mullah on his knees in the town square, raising his hands towards Heaven and loudly thanking God.
“Mullah,” they ask, do you not understand that your donkey is lost forever?”
“Indeed!” replies the Mullah. “But I have so much to be grateful for. Imagine how much worse off I would be if I had been on the donkey!”
(Next post: some ways to actually make a practice and habit of gratitude)