Through Stained Glass: October 30th, 2014

Gratitude, it seems, is “in.” Spurred on in part by Oprah Winfrey’s suggestion that we keep gratitude journals, the current trend of the “gratitude challenge” has hit social media recently, and despite my cynicism about some viral trends on Facebook (don’t get me started on the ice bucket challenge), the gratitude challenge does in fact tap in to some good mental health and spiritual practices. However, the true practices and benefits of the life of gratitude are much more complex than the Facebook trend might suggest.

Environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy noted: “Gratitude for life is the primary well-spring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art.”  She goes on to say that we so easily take this gift of life for granted, which is why “so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never ourselves create.”  In many traditions, thanksgiving is offered to the source of all life (God) in many ways and at many times: at the beginning and ending of the day, at meals (in some traditions, at the beginning and end of the meal), at gatherings of people, at harvest time and hunt and at celebrations. Now that Thanksgiving has come and passed, it’s important that we remember the ideals it instills.

Gratitude is not only a supporting pillar of many religious traditions; it’s also good for us. Studies have demonstrated the positive links between acts and attitudes of gratitude and positive life outlook. People who keep weekly gratitude journals are more likely to exercise, attract other people and make progress toward important personal goals. Gratitude is a significant predictor of resilience among university students who face challenges and stress. Those who practice gratitude consistently report lower blood pressure, higher levels of happiness, a greater likelihood of demonstrating generosity and compassion and are less likely to feel lonely or isolated.

An ongoing scientific study at the University of California, Berkeley is exploring the causes, effect and meaning of gratitude; is it all that we think it is? Researchers are looking for answers to many questions around gratitude. Does a moment of thankfulness statistically predict the likelihood of a pay-it-forward response?  Are men or women more likely to spread gratitude? Do men tend to feel grateful for different things than women? Does gratitude practice have any discernible racial, ethnic, or regional variations? Does there tend to be an ebb and flow of gratitude over our lifetimes?

Beyond the psychological and social benefits of gratitude, there are tremendous spiritual benefits. The ongoing acts of gratitude can open us to the creation around, an appreciation of life itself, the presence of the divine, however we may define it. We are opened, through gratitude as a daily awareness practice, to the world, to others, to ourselves and the possibility of transformation and change. We become more positive and are more likely to celebrate the goodness of life and seek that goodness. As Canadian theologian Mary Jo Leddy notes: “Authentic spirituality, genuine politics, and good economics arise from a spirit of radical gratitude.”  The spiritual traditions of world religions celebrate what the world often forgets, the essential and inherent goodness of life, both at the micro or personal, community and even global level, and gratitude for that goodness helps us to focus on maintaining and supporting it.

There are many ways to be grateful beyond maintaining a gratitude journal or posting in social media. The task is to make the attitude an act, activity, or action that becomes part of who we are, in the long term. Writing in a journal weekly, some studies suggest, may be more beneficial and more long-lasting than daily writing. Cultivating an attitude of intentionality regularly that allows us to seek out and appreciate things in our daily living, may be of great benefit. We may benefit more from focusing our gratitude on people rather than things. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in the nineteenth century, “Celebrate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continually. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include everything in your gratitude.”

And so I was fascinated to see, scrawled on a wall in a shantytown in Kingston, Jamaica, a brief act of gratitude for life, “HAB 3:18.”  This is a reference to the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, chapter 3, verse 18: “yet will I rejoice in the Lord.”  The preceding verse is a lament of drought, lost crops and hunger, and verse 18 proclaims that amidst these hardships, gratitude remains. In the midst of challenge and want, gratitude can keep us positive.

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