Gratitude is often spoken of and addressed in Conference. Yet how often have you stopped to consider how gratitude is manifested in your own life?
It is Christmas morning, 6:00 a.m., and I have been up all night wandering the house with thoughts of gratitude and what it is to be grateful running through my head. When I have slept, I have had a steady stream of realizations and ideas of what gratitude is invading my slumber. So here I am, in an effort to purge this topic from my soul, so I can go back to bed and sleep. I guess this is the price we pay who agree to write what they are given. It is rarely convenient, and usually comes at inopportune times. But what comes in the wee hours of the morning, or late hours of the night, are enriching and wonderous to the soul. I wouldn’t trade the experience for all the sleep in the world, tired as I may be.
There are many good talks on gratitude on the Church website, especially if you look under the Conference addresses. What has kept me up is not whether or not I should be grateful, or more grateful, for I know that is true. My quandary is about the nature of gratitude itself. How is it experienced? What does it feel like, and what brings it into our life in the first place? Why is it so desirable?
In my desire to understand gratitude better I decided to see how the profession of psychology defines it. To my surprise, the magazine Psychology Today has an online article that really opened my eyes to some of the ways we can experience gratitude, what it does, and how it can be defined. I’ve been to university. I know how academic articles are when treating technical subjects like psychology. But this article was simple to read, as well as to understand. Thank you Psychology Today. I will be referencing things mentioned in the article as I talk about the nature of gratitude. I will also be referencing gospel perspectives on the subject.
The attributes of gratitude
Gratitude is not a kit one can buy from a store that has a predefined set of instructions that lead from one step to the next. Gratitude is complex, for it is a state of being, an attitude, a feeling, and an attribute. Wherever I start in my description of it, it won’t be at “the beginning,” for there is no beginning. So I will jump into the middle of it and try to make sense of my surroundings.
Spontaneous, but not
Sometimes we feel grateful for something, but the feeling is spontaneously generated. We are surprised at this powerful burst of gratitude. As welcome as it is, it seems to both come and go, almost unbidden. Yet when we are experiencing deep gratitude, it is such a powerful emotional response that we can’t imagine we could ever tire of it. And before we know it, we are distracted by something else, and that good feeling we just had begins to slip away. Why?
I think that when we experience a wave of gratitude we are actually becoming hyper sensitive to it, or hyper aware of it. It may already be something that is always there in the background of our thinking, but something happens to bring it to the forefront of our mind. Once we acknowledge it, feel it, and express it (hopefully), it begins to go back to where it came from in its home with all our other emotions that are constantly moving about on the periphery of our consciousness.
The interesting thing about gratitude emerging to the forefront of our thinking, is that we can, especially with practice, cause it to be felt. So if you like how it feels when a wave of gratitude washes over you, you can experience that more often when you practice being grateful. Being grateful can be experienced by doing things that make you aware of the kindness of others. Counting your blessings is one way. You can also spend time thinking about how someone has been good to you, what life would be like had not something good happened that was beneficial to you. This last one is referred to as subtractive thinking, which is thinking in the negative, but backwards. For example, how would my life have turned out if I hadn’t met my friend who changed my life? Or how might your life be today if you had never had that particular child, knowing how much you love them, and how much they have blessed your life?
Gratitude can be a mood or an emotion, meaning that it can come both unbidden, and also can be experienced on purpose. Emotions come from an agitation of feelings, like the flutter in your stomach when the person you love walks into a room, or how you might go red in the face when someone starts to do something that makes you angry. Gratitude (thankfulness) can be experienced in just such a way as the other emotions, but like someone who always feel generous and kind to others, we can also be in a grateful mood. Moods can be indicative of overall attitudes, like someone who believes being kind to others is a good thing will often be in a generous mood.
Gratitude can also be a habit. As any emotion, like love, hate, or indifference, it can be strengthened by practicing it. The more we find ways to be grateful for what we have, for the kindness of others, for anything really, the easier it will be for us to feel the emotions that come with experiencing genuine gratitude. And it has been my experience that feeling gratitude includes a rush of emotions, which includes a swelling of the heart (in a manner of speaking).
According to the scriptures, our hearts can be softened or hardened. Those with hard hearts become resistant to the Spirit and to the word of God. Hard hearted people don’t feel as often the tender emotions the Spirit thrives on. They tend to be up in their heads, instead of their hearts. Those who listen to the Spirit learn to be softer, more pliable people. They are more concerned with the welfare of others, and are more easily reached, and affected, by emotions. Being either hard or soft hearted is a choice. We can choose to be believing and count our blessings, thus experiencing more gratitude toward God and that which is good. We can also refuse to believe what we are taught in the scriptures and by God’s prophets and reason our way out of feeling things from the Spirit. This also happens when the Spirit tries to speak to us to urge us to do something good, and we argue with Him or ignore Him.
The state of our heart is ultimately up to us. We control the softness or hardness of our heart by the choices we make in our daily life. When we live a cerebral life, one that is centered in the philosophies of the world, our hearts will only harden, for the world does not produce soft hearts. The world is a cold and unforgiving place. If we want soft hearts, only studying the scriptures, praying to our Father in Heaven, serving others, and seeking to recognize God’s influence and presence in our life will do the trick.
Note that we must choose one path or the other. These are two very different ideologies. If we choose the thinking of the world, we are not choosing the option that leads to gratitude as an attitude. As we seek to make gratitude a bigger part of our life, it actually becomes a personality trait. Try to define God, but don’t include anything that has to do with gratitude. What, don’t you think that God feels gratitude? Do you think He only insists we feel it, but He is exempt? God asks nothing of us that He has not already perfected in Himself.
Source of gratitude
In all ways that I can think of, gratitude is an outward bound emotion. It comes from recognizing the goodness of others towards us. To accept those displays of affection, those demonstrations of kindness, or those expressions of love, we must become somewhat vulnerable. This is very counter to the world’s teachings that we must be self-sufficient, self regulating, and our own judge of what is right or wrong. Experiencing gratitude is an act of recognition of goodness that is outside of our self. We acknowledge someone else’s blessings in our own life and are thankful for that generosity. We also recognize that we must be reliant on each other in order for that to continue. This one point alone explains why so many people have a problem with being grateful – they can’t bring themselves to be that interdependent on other people, nor to do they want the responsibility of having to behave in kind. Many in today’s society are perfectly happy to take the goodness offered by others, but very resentful when others expect them to respond in like manner. We cannot be grateful and selfish at the same time.
As I just mentioned, it is important to recognize that gratitude is predominantly something that comes from outside sources. It can’t be self serving. Our gratitude, if directed at our own abilities and attributes is called narcissism or selfishness. No, gratitude must be focused outward to the goodness of people or situations that have blessed us. And sometimes this take real effort to acknowledge, especially when we are wrapped up in the day-to-day tragedies of our own life. We must make the time to reflect on what is good in our lives. A General Conference talk by Brother Gordon T. Watts illustrates this point well.
Often in our humble home there were not as many shingles as we had roof. The rest-room facility was connected by a long path that required some advance planning, and sometimes my worn shirt had more buttonholes than buttons. The Saturday night bath in front of a warm stove, where your body experienced both extremes in temperature, was a luxury.
Then something changed. I started school and began to notice possessions I had not known. Some had nice clothing, beautiful homes with all the modern conveniences, and drove newer automobiles. Many my age were not required to arise early and do chores before going to school, only to go home at night and do them all over again. While they were popular and confident, I became backward and shy. Regretfully, I began to forget how happy I had been with my basket of blessings as I indulged in comparing their seemingly endless bushels to mine. Thus, the blinders to humility began distorting reality, giving way to ingratitude. The expectation that more is deserved can cause our plate of plenty to appear empty. Gratitude has many faces and takes on many forms. Failure to recognize the Lord for all we have will soon result in selfish behavior.
Did you relate to the joy he felt, even in his great poverty? Too often our gratitude wanes as our prosperity grows. Having been exceedingly poor for a period of time in my life, I learned something about myself. I learned that I was far more generous when I had literally nothing than when I had enough to subsist on. The more I got, the more I guarded what I had, and the less I was willing to share. I have since tried my best to repent of that attitude. Here is a further illustration from Brother Watts’ talk.
Joy and happiness are born of gratitude. Recently Sister Watts and I spent three years in another part of the world working with a very kind and gracious people. If worldly possessions equated to happiness, the majority of these Saints would be unhappy. Quite the contrary, gratitude abounds, resulting in a contagious display of rejoicing. It is evident that even though they live in a challenging environment with few advantages, they are a delightful people. A cheerfulness is generated by their gratitude for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the blessings derived from living the principles taught. One faithful district president expressed gratitude to have a bicycle for transportation to perform his calling. It seemed the more he pedaled, the happier he became. Perhaps there is a lesson here: if we are feeling ungrateful, we need to pedal a little faster. The depth and the willingness with which we serve is a direct reflection of our gratitude.
How I feel gratitude
I have been contemplating how to describe gratitude when I feel it, and am still struggling to find the words to convey my emotions. I can be grateful for something, and it is like a casual acknowledgment that something good has just happened. But there are times when, unbidden, a rush of joy fills my heart and I cannot withhold the tears. It is at times like this that I wish I could bottle this feeling of joy and rejoicing, and drink it at will forever. I never want it to stop. The intensity of the feeling makes me wish I could compose for the celestial choirs, for I have an overwhelming urge to sing out God’s praises for His goodness and mercy to me. I want to go and tell everyone I meet how good God actually is. Then there are times when all I can do is weep and say Thank you, over and over again, for words fail me.
I may not have this emotional high very often, but when I take the time to remember how it felt, my gratitude, or my attitude of gratitude is rekindled anew. It sustains me in the times when I am having difficulty seeing that I have much to be grateful for. In those times of doubt and emotional bleakness, the memory alone, if I can find it, helps to strengthen and heal me enough to go on.
Because today is Christmas, I will close with this thought on the Savior’s life. Search the scriptures. Determine for yourself how often the Savior expressed gratitude. His mortal life was no picnic or walk in the park. It was a hard life any way you look at it. As the scriptures say, he was rejected and despised of men. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Yet, for all this, he was a man grateful to God and to any kindness offered by others. Of all flesh, he would have had the right to claim bitterness and loss, yet he focused on his relationship with God, and felt blessed. He spent his life urging others to find and express their gratitude.
I believe that the degree to which we learn to feel blessed by God, or from any other source we can find, is the degree to which we will be able to turn that acknowledgment of goodness outward in blessing the lives of others around us. “Joy and happiness [really] are born of gratitude.”
Click the link below to
print a PDF copy of the article.