Sometimes we need to be brought to the edge of darkness to realize how much we’ve already been given by God to enjoy and celebrate. This can be the case even if we are religiously attuned, spiritually alert, and psychologically healthy.
Life presents the unexpected often in a compounded way—a loved one becomes ill or dies, no job can be found, an addiction rages in someone close to you, a relationship falls apart, or you find yourself overwhelmed because you are caring for both adult children and aging parents. It is during these challenging times that a circle of grace is formed, if a healthy perspective, gratitude, and happiness are cultivated. Otherwise, we are in danger of losing ourselves as the waves of circumstance come crashing down.
New peace and joy are seeded when a healthy perspective is established. When we can see situations with greater clarity, we are willing to face what is actually before us. Unrealistic expectations are jettisoned; projections of blame, harshness, or self-attack are released. This does not mean that the crisis has passed, but how we view our world and our place in it has shifted.
Poet John Milton said, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” It is in these transformational moments that “a spiritual and psychological pearl of great price” can found: a healthier perspective that engenders contentment. This may not necessarily be the fulfillment of what you want next, but the realization of what you already have.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, who went through the blitzkrieg of World War II, noted in his book Gratefulness that many leave their homes with a preconceived gratefulness list. He suggests tossing it out and considering all we encounter with the “eyes of surprise” (i.e., a healthy perspective). He says, “Even the predictable turns into surprise the moment we stop taking it for granted. . . . Surprise is no more than a beginning of that fullness we call gratefulness. Do we find it difficult to imagine that gratefulness could ever become our basic attitude toward life? In moments of surprise we catch at least a glimpse of the joy to which gratefulness opens the door. More than that—in moments of surprise we already have a foot in the door.”
Monk and mystic Thomas Merton deepens what Brother David states by noting further: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”
There are many ways in which we already express our thankfulness to the Lord through prayer, meditation, and worship. It is through this intimate relationship with God marked by gratitude that joy then both overflows and remains. With such an attitude of gratitude, we find that joy is contingent on an attitude that welcomes an internal filling up of us by an eternal source. The practice and prayers of gratitude accomplish this by clearing the debris from the past, disarming our sense of entitlement, and opening us up to new possibilities.
A Jesuit priest who taught at Georgetown University once mentioned during a homily that he was walking to school one day and encountered a homeless man asking for money. The priest decided to give him some change he had in his pocket. When he did, the man thanked him and said, “Please pray for me.”
The priest nodded, said he would, and then added almost as a matter of course as he was turning away, “Please pray for me, too.” At which point, the man said in return, “Why? What seems to be the problem?”
The priest hadn’t really expected this and started to mumble some response. The man then took the priest’s hands into his, looked up at the sky, prayed out loud for him for a few seconds, released his hands, and wished him well. Later, during his evening prayer and reflection, the priest recognized that he was so surprised at this because he had prejudged the man and the situation. The grace given to explore the previous encounter in new ways opened up “eyes of gratitude” and his outlook to seeing people and events with fewer preconceptions.
Being open and seeking not to be judgmental are often quite elusive undertakings, no matter how aware we try to be. Even when we think we have a sense of openness and are sensitive to what is happening around us, often we are not. We can’t be, because we never have all the information. The true sensitivity and real wisdom that are at the core of a healthy perspective begin with recognizing this fact, by minding our predictions or evaluations of others.
As Robert Emmons noted in his book Thanks!, gratitude is an attitude that has many worthy ideas and aspects. To be aware of them is a way of honoring both the importance and the difficulty of being a grateful person in a sometimes entitlement-driven society. He and others have noted that gratitude:
+ seems simple, but is quite complex. It can be viewed as an emotion, an attitude, and a way of living. It focuses us on appreciating what we have been given and fosters an openness to what else might come our way.
+ may be avoided because of fear. As a result, with a spirit of ingratitude, we will miss out on a plethora of positive emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, relational, and societal consequences opened by gratitude.
+ can be maximized through practice. Losses or negative events aren’t diminished or avoided, but the meaning derived can be more positive.
+ takes on depth in the “dark times” that provides comfort.
How to Practice Gratitude
With these concepts in mind, here are six simple—and we have found to be surprisingly powerful—suggested steps to refine your practice of gratitude:
1. Start where you are. As a child of God, you are special simply because he has made you in his image and loves you unconditionally. Fully embrace your worth and be content with who and where you already are. Not to do so would be to miss the grace.
2. Become like a child and allow wonderment to flow. Somewhere along the road to becoming an adult, many of us have forgotten to count the fireflies on a summer’s night, chase butterflies through the fields, and marvel at the perfection of a robin’s egg. Don’t be shy—jump in!
3. Realize that time is of the essence. We can fail to acknowledge the impermanence of life or fall into the trap of an anxiety-driven life. Impermanence helps us realize how pressure-filled and fleeting our time on earth is—no matter how idyllic the setting.
4. Recognize that everything is already ours. We do not need something or someone to be happy. This illusion can keep us stuck for a lifetime. Instead, realize with a truly grateful heart: we have everything we need whether we technically own it or not.
5. Stay in the now. Being aware of the true fragility of life—namely, that we are dying and everyone else is dying too—helps us be grateful. It helps us to appreciate the people around us and the affluence that we already possess.
6. Release illusions. Deep gratitude nourishes contentment by opening our eyes to the hidden, undeserved graces that show up each day. Most people are, unfortunately, oblivious to these graces because they have predetermined what will make them happy and are, therefore, closed to everything else that is set before them.
Gratitude and Happiness
Some people seem happy by nature; however, it can be nurtured in all of us. In his book Happiness, scientist and Buddhist scholar Matthieu Ricard offered: “I have . . . met human beings who were enduringly happy. More, in fact, than what we usually call happy: they were inbred with a deep insight into the reality
and the nature of mind, and filled with benevolence for others. I have also come to understand that although some people are naturally happier than others, this happiness as a way of being, is a skill.”
As in the case of gratitude, we may, because of our constitutional nature or other factors, have a predisposition to being a happy person. However, each of us has the opportunity to maximize our range of potential happiness.
Obviously, it is not something wished into reality. Practice and careful approaches to developing stronger positive outlooks can make a difference. Ask yourself the following:
+ What or who brings you happiness? Do they or these relationships bring depth to your experiences?
+ Are you able to enjoy the gifts that are in your life now while being able to reframe unfinished business from the past?
+ How do you purposely savor life each day?
+ Do you have different (prophetic, encouraging, humorous, and inspirational) friends who help you cultivate gratitude and happiness?
+ What do you do that brings meaning to you? How can you do it more often?
+ What are you putting off until . . . ? How can you do it sooner?
Your responses to these questions can begin the process of appreciating the virtue of happiness. However, to strengthen your own sense of well-being, quality of life, and happiness, let’s take it even further by employing the following six steps:
1. Take a deep breath. Examine your “alone times” (periods of solitude or silent reflection within yourself). Are they fulfilling? Can you grab a few more crumbs of alone time throughout the day to step back, re-energize, and approach the remainder of the day with wonder?
2. Conduct an inventory. Explore your gifts and shortcomings equally. If negative thoughts intrude, set them aside. As practitioners in the helping profession, we often hear, “But I don’t have any strengths.” Engage trusted friends and allow them to share what they see in you.
3. Compare downward. Consider how much you have compared to others and take the time to enjoy it. For example, taking a walk or breathing without pain is a pure gift that we often take for granted.
4. Reward yourself. How can you lessen how much you take the people, activities, and things that you enjoy for granted? Take time to really engage each person you meet and mine the experiences you encounter.
5. Be countercultural. Take a detour from the extremes of society and allow yourself to create a new path that celebrates simplicity and deep connections with others.
6. Serve others with abandon. Explore your motivations, and if there is a sense of obligation, consider what it would take to let it go. If there is fear, allow God to intercede and fill any “gaps” that you may perceive.
Flourishing in life takes effort. Walker Percy, in his book The Moviegoer, suggested that, “The search is what anyone would understand if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. . . . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Life can be drudgery or an adventure defined by a healthy perspective, gratitude, and happiness. When we choose the latter, it reflects our willingness to accept God’s gift of joy that is freely and abundantly given to all of us who seek divine wonder.
Not to do this is actually, in a word, dangerous. To return to physician and writer Walker Percy’s words, we can see why this is so. In one of his novels, he writes, “What if life is like a plane and we miss it?” Clearly, in today’s anxious, busy, and stressful world, this is so easy to do. And, given all that God has given us, this would be a terrible shame not only for us, but also for those in our lives who would benefit from our sharing the positive joy we experience within ourselves through gratitude and happiness.
Dr. Robert J. Wicks’ latest book is Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media). Tina C. Buck possesses an MS in pastoral counseling, works with children and their families, and writes on the integration of psychology and spirituality.