As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
From my TSM article ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing‘:
“Gratitude is not a type of feel-good escapism whereby we tell ourselves that things are good when they are not; rather it is learning to ‘see’ our life in a new way and to perceive the good that may be obscured by the familiar context of the ordinary.”
Since I’ve been posting a lot recently about gratitude, mention of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is way overdue. Bonhoeffer was one of the best examples of gratitude throughout the 20th century. Like Viktor Frankl, Bonhoeffer showed that gratitude is possible even in the midst of unimaginably harsh circumstances. Here is what I wrote about Bonhoeffer on page 264 of my book Saints and Scoundrels:
“Even in the midst of the agonizing circumstances of a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer never ceased to overflow with gratitude to God. Facing the daily possibility of death, he regarded each day as a precious gift from the Lord, to be received with thankfulness and joy. One English officer imprisoned with him later commented: “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.” Thankfulness did not come easy to Bonhoeffer. He had much to be troubled over. His worst torment was the separation from his beloved fiancee, Maria, and the uncertainty of not knowing whether she was safe. During these sufferings, Bonhoeffer’s approach was not merely to refrain from complaining. Nor was it to be joyful in spite of the hardship. Rather, he teaches us that we can be grateful not just in suffering but for the suffering itself. Bonhoeffer believed that difficult circumstances, no less than pleasant ones, come from the hand of God.”
I’d like to invite you to do a little thought experiment with me. Shut your eyes and imagine that every single person on earth is thinking about you right now. Moreover, imagine that every person is not only thinking about you, but loving you and working to arrange all things for your benefit. Of course that could never happen, but just imagine for a moment that it were possible and what it would feel like. In this thought experiment, everyone in the world feels the same protective love towards you that a father and mother feel for their young child.
Now I want to ask you a question: in the state of affairs I’ve asked you to imagine, would you ever have reason to worry, to feel anxiety or be insecure? Would you need to grasp good things for yourself? Obviously not.
Here is the text for the handout that I passed out during my OCAMPR workshop last month:
- Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, by Father Alexis Trader (Peter Lang, 2011). This book, written by an Athonite monk for the American University Studies series on theology and religion, offers extensive discussin of cognitive reframing in the thought of the Patristics.
- ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips, Part 4’, available at http://tinyurl.com/zr7rob9. This final segment of a 4-part interview on brain fitness explores the role imagination can play in helping with cognitive reframing.
- ‘Your Survival is in God’s Hands – so relax’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2604. This article looks at some of the teachings of Dorotheos of Gaza on God’s love and how these insights can help us reframe challenges.
- ‘Ledgerwood on Reframing and Negativity Bias’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=1949. This article summarizes the findings of psychology researcher Alison Ledgerwood who shows that the human mind naturally finds it easy to reframe positive events in negative terms but struggles to convert negatives into positives. This research suggests some ways to overcome the natural negativity bias of the human brain.
- Our Thoughts Determine our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009).
- The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin Books, 2007), by Norman Doidge. As a psychotherapist, Dr. Diodge was finding that his clients’ experiences were constantly challenging the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. This led him on a journey of discovery to understand the emerging science of brain plasticity. For those who aren’t scientists, this book is the best general overview available to the latest discoveries on the flexibility of brain structures. This book gives hope for those who are just beginning to develop the skill of gratitude since Dr. Doidge shows it’s possible for a person to literally re-wire their brains and habituate new patterns of thinking.
- ‘The Neuro Transformers: Culture & the Malleability of the Human Brain’, by Robin Phillips (Salvo Magazine 21, Summer 2012), available online at http://salvomag.com/new/articles/salvo21/the-neuro-transformers.php. This article explores the role that culture plays in shaping our flexible brains. Many of the assumptions that form the taken-for-granted background of our lives are instilled in our thinking by cultural forces that we often fail to recognize.
- ‘Do What Comes Naturally…But Work at it’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2052. An abiding myth in our culture is that the more effort something requires, the less genuine or authentic is the result. Accordingly, it is often assumed that gratitude is more genuine when it exists as a raw emotion that simply comes upon us independent of effort and struggle. This article shows how the habits, attitudes and impulses that are natural to us can be trained and altered. Through difficult effort and habituation we can actually rewire the neuro-circuitry of our brains so that virtuous patterns of thinking and acting—patterns that once felt artificial and contrived—start to become second-nature to us.
- ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill that Can be Developed With Practice’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://tinyurl.com/hvp8c6o. This article shows that peace of mind is a skill that anyone can develop with practice. The article offers 6 steps for keeping a positive mindset without being escapist.
- ‘Gratitude is an Emotion and a Skill’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2750. This article looks at the 3-fold nature of gratitude and the relationship between our minds, our behavior and our emotions.
- ‘The CBT Triangle and You’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.taylorstudymethod.com/blog/cbt-triangle.’This article looks at the history of cognitive behavioral therapy and why the CBT triangle provides a framework for overcoming disordered feelings and cognitions.
- The Psychology of Gratitude, edited by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (Oxford University Press, 2004).
- ‘My Pilgrimage Towards Gratefulness’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2077. This article is a testimony about what I learned regarding gratitude from my time at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex England.
- Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert Emmons (Mariner Books, 2008)
- ‘Gratefulness and the Rising Baseline’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=1796. This article is part of a series exploring the relationship between technology and gratitude. Household technologies have created the terrible burden of making everyone feel that the baseline for normality is a lifestyle once appropriate only to the rich. Rising expectations have meant that household technologies have not been accompanied by an increase in the net gratefulness among those who reach that baseline.
- Gratitude: An Intellectual History, by Peter Leithart (Baylor University Press, 2014)
- ‘The Grateful Brain: The neuroscience of giving thanks’, by Alex Korb Ph.D., available online at http://tinyurl.com/pg3deov.
- ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.taylorstudymethod.com/blog/gratitude-and-eppp-prep/. This article explores the way human beings instinctively impose meaning on experiences through a process of disambiguation. The contexts that we unconsciously attach to our experiences affect how we perceive those experiences. However, because such contexts are often relative, ambiguous and misleading, this leads to inaccurate perceptions. Gratitude emerges when we train ourselves to disambiguate in a way more aligned with truth. Gratitude involves learning to “see” our life in a new way and to perceive the good that may be obscured by the familiar context of the ordinary. When we come to appreciate how the normal things we take for granted are unprecedented (historically speaking), then we can learn to perceive everything in our lives, including trials and struggles, against a more accurate backdrop. In this way, we can begin to find meaning in the ambiguity of our lives, a meaning suffused with occasions for profound gratitude.
- ‘A Medical Perspective on the Mind, Body, Soul Connection’, Dr. Trent Orfanos, Ancient Faith Radio, available at http://tinyurl.com/zgwppcr
- The HeartMath Solution, by Doc Lew Childre and Howard Martin (HarperOne, 2000).
- Transforming Stress: The Heartmath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension, by Doc Childre and Deborah Rozman (New Harbinger Publications, 2005).
- ‘The Coherent Heart: Heart–Brain Interactions, Psychophysiological Coherence, and the Emergence of System-Wide Order’, by Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., Mike Atkinson, Dana Tomasino, B.A., and Raymond Trevor Bradley, Ph.D., Integral Review, 2009, available online at http://tinyurl.com/jca9bvv
- ‘Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 1. The Surprising Role of the Heart’ by Rollin Mccraty, Mike Atkinson and Raymond Trevor Bradley, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, available online at http://tinyurl.com/zoxh64m
Historical Examples of Gratitude
- Saints and Scoundrels, by Robin Phillips (Canon Press, 2011). Chapter 15 is devoted to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with particular emphasis on his grateful attitude to life.
- Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies, and Talks (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2010).
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (Verlag für Jugend und Volk, 1946).
‘Viktor Frankl on Reframing Suffering’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=1981. This article summarizes Viktor Frankl’s example and teaching, drawing implications for each of us as we struggle to cultivate gratitude in the midst of life’s difficulties.
Problems with “Positive Psychology”
- ‘The peril of positive thinking – why positive messages hurt people with low self-esteem’, by Ed Yong, available at http://tinyurl.com/9nnk8r3. This article summarizes research that was published in the journal Psychological Science showing that for people with low self-esteem, using positive self-help statements can backfire and make them feel worse.
- ‘What Gratitude is NOT’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2834. This article explores how gratitude differs from escapist approaches while offering a solution to the twin evils of sentimentalism and cynicism. In contrast to feel-good models of positive psychology, true gratitude involves acknowledging and accepting sufferings while interpreting those sufferings in a spiritual way. This article also suggests that when our pursuit of comfort leads us to numb ourselves to the pain and hurt happening around us, or happening to us, we’re also inadvertently numbing away our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including the emotion of gratitude. Gratitude is important because it gives us the ability to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. When we do this, the research shows that we actually become more resilience to suffering. The resilience that gratitude makes possible is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to help others who are going through difficulties. Instead of pushing people away because we can’t cope with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves so we aren’t touched by another person’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize and to identify with those who are in pain.
- ‘Positive Think Can Make You Too Lazy to Meet Your Goals’, by Renuka Rayasam, available at http://tinyurl.com/jjx3kux. This article shows that false optimism, including a wrong emphasis on “the power of positivity”, can prevent people from reaching their goals and cause people to underestimate risk, in addition to leading to unrealistic ideas about the future.
- Christ the Eternal Tao, by Hieromonk Damascene (Valaam Books, 2012). Chapter 3 has an excellent summary of Patristic teachings on watchfulness and is a valuable contribution to contemporary discussions on mindfulness.
- Switch On Your Brain, by Dr. Caroline Leaf (Baker Books, 2013). In the course of her career as a neuroscience researcher, Dr. Leaf found that new scientific evidence on neuroplasticity was supporting Biblical teaching on mental, emotional and physical health. Dr. Leaf offers step-by-step guidance on using scriptural practices like mindfulness, gratitude and inner prayer to eliminate the toxic patterns of thinking that weigh us down.
- ‘The Most Important 10 Minutes of Your Life’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2621. This article explores the relationship between gratitude and meditation.
- ‘Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 4)’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2256). This article is the fourth in an ongoing series on attentiveness and defends the following 6 propositions:
- Attentive awareness of our own physiological and emotional is key to developing self-mastery.
- Emotional maturity involves the ability to watch both our thoughts and our feelings as they occur and thus to increase the gap between stimulus and response.
- The same mental muscles involved in attentive perception of our own moods and feelings are also utilized when we are attentive to others. Ergo, by coming to truly know ourselves, we increase our capacity for knowing others.
- Developing habits of meta-attention, mindfulness and emotional intelligence enables us to exercise the type of self-donation that lies at the heart of Biblical love.
- Loving attentiveness to another person validates their experience and enables them to flourish in their humanity.
- There are many pressures in the modern world that decrease our capacity for sustained attentiveness. However, this can be reversed through specific exercises.
Last week I had the privilege of traveling out to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology which was hosting this year’s conference for The Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion. I was asked by the OCAMPR board to present a workshop on the topic ‘Gratitude During Times of Suffering.’ My talk, which was recorded on Ancient Faith Radio, is available by clicking on the video below. It is also available for mp3 download here.
It’s important to emphasize that true gratitude is not a type of Pollyanna, everything-is-happy optimism. Sometimes in the self-help literature, people are encouraged to just assert they are happy even when they aren’t. There are some interesting studies showing that for certain types of people this false optimism not only doesn’t help, but actually makes them more miserable. So gratitude isn’t just gritting your teeth and saying things are fine when they aren’t. True gratitude is the opposite of this since it involves acknowledging and accepting one’s sufferings, but then interpreting those sufferings in a spiritual way.
The following is from Robert Roberts’ essay ‘The Blessings of Gratitude’ in the volume The Psychology of Gratitude:
“The constitutionally grateful person has a shield against such debilitating regrets because he or she is inclined to dwell on the favorable, rather than the regrettable. As noted earlier, as an emotion, gratitude is a perception of benefits and benevolence; a person with gratitude-readiness will tend to see what is good in situations and to notice less what is bad. The kind of unfortunate actions and events that make the constitutionally regretful person miserable may have occurred in the grateful one’s life as well, but the grateful person can move on from them, because his or her mind is tuned to happier things….
Grateful people tend to be satisfied with what they have and so are less susceptible to such emotions as disappointment, regret, and frustration. People who believe in God as He is conceived in Christianity have an even more powerful resource for transcending many of the circumstances that disappoint, frustrate, and anger most of us. In consequence, grateful people, whether religious or not, will be less prone to emotions such as anger, resentment, envy, and bitterness, that tend to undermine happy social relations. But the virtue of gratitude is not only a prophylactic against such corruption of relationships; it also contributes positively to friendship and civility, because it is both benevolent (wishing the benefactor well) and just (giving the benefactor his or her due, in a certain special way). The justice of gratitude can be plausible argued to be metaphysical–a kind of attunement to one’s basic human nature and the nature of the universe–because we are in fact dependent recipients of good things, both from some of our fellow human beings and from God. Such attunement is a realization of human nature and thus maturity, fulfillment, well-being.
How can we cultivate the virtue of gratitude when it is lacking? Can a person train themselves to actually feel grateful? Is gratitude even a feeling, or is it an act of the will.
These are some questions I want to briefly address in today’s post.
Much of the contemporary research being done on gratitude was published by Oxford University Press in their 2004 book The Psychology of Gratitude. The book brought together scholars working on gratitude from diverse fields: biology, history, spirituality, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, etc. I looked at all the various perspectives to try to see if some kind of synthesis or common thread that could be traced through the various perspectives. And the one thing that became clear is that gratitude involves the whole person: the will, the mind and the feelings. That might seem like an obvious point. But understanding the three-fold nature of gratitude is key to answering the question of how an ungrateful person can go about cultivating gratitude.
It will be helpful to discuss all three of these aspects, starting with the mind. I am beginning with the mind for purely organizational reasons and am not implying any psychological or logical priority in this way of ordering things. The mind, the will and the feelings all work simultaneously in a web of multiple reciprocities, but for organizational purposes it is necessary to treat them separately.