2014-10-31

Gratitude and Its Expression 3

Gratitude is an element of prayer, and, like prayer, changes the world because it changes us, allowing us to be more positive forces in changing our world.

Psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, Robert Emmons conducted a study in which he asked people to make journal entries once a week. He randomly assigned subjects to one of three groups.

The first group he asked to list in their journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the last week.

The second group he asked to describe five hassles or annoyances that week.

The third group, the neutral group, was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, and they were not told to accentuate the positive or negative aspects of those circumstances.

In the first group, typical samples of things for which people were grateful were:
  • The generosity of friends;
  • The right to vote;
  • The God-given gift of determination;
  • That I have learned all that I have learned;
  • Sunset through the clouds;
  • The chance to be alive;
  • My in-laws live only ten minutes away.
In the second group, typical samples of things which people found to be hassles or annoyances included:
  • Hard to find parking;
  • Messy kitchen no one will clean;
  • Finances depleting quickly;
  • No money for gas;
  • Our house smells like manure;
  • Burned my macaroni and cheese;
  • Did favor for friend who didn’t appreciate it;
  • My in-laws live only ten minutes away.
In addition to this journal listing, he also asked subject to give an answer each week to two questions: one about how they felt about their life as a whole during the week, on a -3 to +3 scale, with -3 being “terrible,” and +3 being “delighted.” Second, he asked participants to rate their expectations for the upcoming week on a scale from -3 (“pessimistic, expect the worst”) to +3 (“optimistic, expect the best”).

At the beginning of the ten-week study period, the three groups were about the same in terms of how they felt about their life as a whole and what they expected for the upcoming week: about the same range of responses and about the same average response. By the end of the ten weeks, however, the gratitude group was scoring much higher on both how they felt about their life as a whole and on what they expected out of the upcoming week than either the hassles group or the neutral group.

It was remarkable, reports Emmons, how much difference it made to take just a couple minutes once a week to list five things for which one is grateful.

In a follow-up study, Emmons asked subjects to journal every day (rather than once a week) about what they were grateful for that day, or what annoyed them that day, or, neutrally, five events that affected them. He found that the differences were even more pronounced -- that the gratitude practice made even more of a difference to people’s perception of the quality of their life, when they were practiced daily.

Religion begins in gratitude, it has been said. It is the first and most basic spiritual practice; the first and most basic spiritual virtue. What separates a purely secular view – of life, of the universe – from a religious view is the infusion of sentiments of thankfulness. The difference between a secular and a religious orientation is not about what entities or supernatural powers do or do not exist – it’s about the attitude we have toward what exists, whatever it is.

The difference between “my inlaws are only 10 minutes away” and “my inlaws are only 10 minutes away” is not a disagreement over the facts, but in whether we are able to cultivate a joy in those facts.
(Not that you have to be joyful about every fact, but do you cultivate joy in general?)

Gratitude takes practice. The gratitude muscle, to become strong, requires regular exercising.

And the people around you can tell. Emmons writes:
“Remarkably, not only did the reports of participants in the gratitude condition indicate increased positive feelings and life satisfaction, but so did the reports of their significant others. Spouses of participants in the gratitude condition reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of participants in the control condition.”
* * *
This is part 3 or 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1

2014-10-28

Gratitude and Its Expression 2

Thank You, Universe

I read about a recent Skeptic conference, where someone was going around asking the participants what they were grateful for. Most participants were thankful for things like friends, family, science, medicine, having a job. One participant, however, rejected the question itself. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

I get the point about anthropomorphizing the universe. Yeah, I kinda do that when I say, "thank you, sky, for being so blue and clear today," or "thank you, October, for being so lovely," or "thank you, universe." There's a hint of anthroporphizing in there. It's a fiction; I know that. But fiction is good for you. Reading novels shows us important truths about our world and ourselves. Good fiction changes us, broadens our understanding, makes us wiser, and it does this even though we know it’s fiction.

So I pretend the universe is just anthropomorphic enough to address as “you.” I do that because I’m a human, and we humans are a highly social species, which means I inherit a brain that’s very socially oriented. A little anthropomorphizing helps brains like ours feel a relation and a connection. (And since gratitude is nonpropositional -- "Thank you, universe," is not a claim -- anthropomorphizing at this low level does not entail endorsing false claims.)

While some at the Skeptic conference reject gratitude because it implies a person-like recipient, some theists embrace gratitude for the same reason: it implies a person-like recipient. Yet let us remember that there’s a long, long continuum stretching between the barest hint of anthropomorphizing which our brains inevitably do and which we can recognize as useful metaphor (at one end) -- and devoted commitment to a superpowerful male-gendered judgmental and bearded father-figure in the sky (at the other end).

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, described an encounter he once had.
“During a conference on religion and peace, a Protestant minister came up to me toward the end of one of our meals together and said, ‘Are you a grateful person?’ I was surprised. I was eating slowly, and I thought to myself, Yes, I am a grateful person. The minister continued, ‘If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God? God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat. Since you do not believe in God, you are not grateful for anything.’ I thought to myself, I feel extremely grateful for everything. Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful. Why would he say that I am not?”
It seems pretty clear that, yes, we can be grateful for beautiful days, for springtime flowers, the summertime feel of bare feet on grass, autumn colors, winter logs in the fireplace, sunsets, beaches, apple trees, and wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings – even though none of those things intentionally chose to give us the gift that they are.

Sometimes intention and choice are relevant to our gratitude – as when I’m thankful to congregation members for the things they do that make our congregation the wonderful community it is. Sometimes intention and choice are not part of the picture – as when I’m thankful for the birds outside my window.

Sometimes gratitude functions to make another person feel affirmed and appreciated. More fundamentally, though, it’s about deciding to be glad about things. It’s about practicing the art of finding delight in things that you didn't make happen -- things beyond your control and maybe beyond anyone’s control.

It is such a great thing that there is so much beauty and abundance and I’m not responsible for it. It just happens. I can plant a seed and water it, but I can’t make it grow. What I can do is decide to pay attention to how delightful that is.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression"
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1

2014-10-27

Gratitude and Its Expression 1


The topic of this series was prompted by a question from a congregant, who asked me to explore gratitude and
“how to handle or act on gratitude we have for people we don't know, such as our doctors' teachers or our teachers' teachers. Is there something we should do? Perhaps all we can do is pay it forward? Or simply accept this as a result of or proof of the interconnected web?”
What a wonderful topic and great questions.

Marriage has taught me that there are two sentences of two words each – four words in all – that are tremendously valuable tools for sustaining relationships. In fact, whether it’s one’s spouse or partner -- or a friend, a co-worker, a boss, an employee – or a store clerk – any relationship that I would like to go well or would like to sustain, these four words in two sentences are powerful help for relationships.

The words are “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” Let people know that you see the good, the helpful, in what they do. That needs to be said – and I know you know that – I know that – but I don’t say thank you enough. I’m reminding myself as much, or maybe more, as I’m reminding you.

Also let people know you accept responsibility. Apologize, as they say, early and often.

Give the credit and take the blame – you know, unless your lawyer advises otherwise. If you’re in a mess involving lawyers, that’s a different game. For the day-to-day business of getting along with people, “take the blame and give the credit” is a good rule of thumb. You, I thank. Me, a culpa. There are times when a more objective assessment of deservingness of praise or blame is called for, but those times are a lot rarer than we tend to think.

“Thank you,” and “I’m sorry” tell the other person you appreciate them, and you regret whatever part you had in straining the relationship. Those words say, "I care about this relationship."

Later on, I'll address the topic of forgiveness and apologizing. For now, let's look at gratitude.

Expressing thanks to specific people in our lives happens to be helpful for maintaining the relationship, and it helps them feel affirmed and appreciated. But expressing gratitude also has a function independent of facilitating specific relationships. If you’re feeling grateful for a beautiful day, you don’t have to be grateful to a person. You can just be appreciating the blue sky, the bright sun, and the fresh air.

In some circles this is controversial. There is a line of thought according to which gratitude must be directed toward some person or person-like entity – some being with intentions – and when you say thank you, you are thanking them for making the choice they did, when they could have chosen otherwise. On this traditional line of thought, it makes no sense to thank water for flowing because the water couldn’t have chosen otherwise. But what you can do is thank God for making water and rivers and the principles of physics. Gratitude for what people do is expressed to the people, and pretty much everything else is, on this line of thought, gratitude for the person-like entity who made things be that way. “I thank you god for most this amazing day,” as e.e. cummings said.

Suppose you say, “Thank you, universe," or, "Thank you, reality.” Does the “you” in “thank you” indicate that something vaguely person-like is receiving the gratitude? Is the universe, or reality, being anthropormorphized? Perhaps so, a little bit. But in a harmless -- indeed, helpful -- way.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression"
Next: Part 2
Photo by the author

2014-10-25

This Week's Prayer

Creation, power of healing, world community of life:

How can we pray when words are so inadequate? Words cannot capture the magnitude of the cosmos, or the feeling of breath, or of love, or the depth of our gratitude. Nor can words express the confusion, anger, fear, and pain among us.

How can we pray when words are so inadequate? Do not our feelings belong rather to whistles of amazement, sighs of wonder, gasps of astonishment, howls of frustration, and whispers of anguish?

Yet, beginning in wordless noises of emotion, let us nevertheless grope toward articulation – knowing the words will be inadequate, but needing to say them.

Thank you for the prophets, the millions of anonymous kind hearts, the dedicated, courageous and visionary – the ones who came before us and did the slow work of building social systems of cooperation, community, trust – the makers of the space and structure for flourishing that we so gratefully inherit.

Our hearts are thankful – and our hearts are anguished.

We remember:
the peoples of West Africa, threatened by the Ebola virus
the people of Canada in the wake of unexplained violence in the capital
the victims of violence of every kind
the disenfranchised and disappointed
those in pain and in the throes of deep grief
those without food and those who have far too much
those who are alone and forgotten
those who are in prison: the tragedy that so many don’t need to be there, and the different tragedy that some do
those for whom war is an ever-present reality

Why are we not delivered from these scourges, healed of this pain? Where is the intelligence and the heart that would have prevented this? That would be guiding us now to end violence, war, hunger, slavery, homelessness?

We are the power, the love, the justice, and the peace. The power is with us and in us and is us.

May we be united respectfully amidst our differences, transcend our tribalism, and make good our capacity to heal ourselves and this dear world.