At first glance, gratitude appears to be a reaction to the conditions of our life. Like smoke from a fire, gratefulness can commonly be understood as the consequential output from the cumulative condition of our days and relationships. We think that the reason we are (or are not) grateful is because we have (or don’t have) particularly rich relationships, a job that is deeply meaningful and satisfying, a spouse that loves and appreciates us, or any other combination of things that we view as optimal or thriving.
Now while gratefulness is indeed inspired by something, it still raises a couple questions. One question is whether gratitude is necessarily produced by those conditions and events of our lives, or if there is an option in the matter. Frankly, more evidence is indicating that is an optional response. One reason is that as people, we are quite adaptable to persistent conditions. For instance, when I first moved to Central Oregon, I was completely overwhelmed by the smell of sage and juniper, but now I literally do not smell it unless I rub it in my face. As with the juniper and sage, we grow accustomed and calloused to things that are continually present in our lives, even the good things!
We are also battling against another ungrateful dynamic: how much time we spend daily trying to solve problems and issues in our lives. The reason this is an issue is because how our brains work. Long story short; when we spend more time thinking about something, it enlarges and occupies a more prominent position in our mental lives. As it begins to take up a disproportionate amount of mental energy, it easily impacts our mental outlook in a corresponding disproportional way.
If we are not consciously and intentionally mindful of the people and parts of our lives that make us grateful (through journaling for example), then our appreciation for them will inevitably drift into the background noise of our lives. We instead pay more attention to the novel interruptions and disruptions throughout our days, and it will then inordinately sculpt how we view our lives.
Presbyterian minister George Buttrick tells the story of “a lecturer to a group of businessmen displayed a sheet of white paper in which was one blot. He asked what they saw. All answered, ‘A blot.’ The test was unfair; it invited the wrong answer. Nevertheless, there is an ingratitude in human nature by which we notice the black disfigurement and forget the widespread mercy. We need to deliberately call to mind the joys of our journey. Perhaps we should try to write down the blessing of one day. We might begin: we could never end: there are not pens or paper enough in all the world. The attempt would remind us of our ‘vast treasure of content.’”
We get hung up on the black dot, and easily miss the sea of white.
Ann Voskamp presents a great picture of this in One Thousand Gifts; a memoir (at least so it seems) of her pursuit of listing a thousand things she is grateful for in her life. Taking a survey of the points of gratitude in our lives doesn’t come naturally to us; these gratitude muscles need to be intentionally exercised in order to get better at remaining grateful. So Ann as Ann journeys towards her millennial mark, she reflects on the rhythms and eddies of gratitude in her own life. However, Ann noticed something else through the process. As she was intentionally searching for things that made her grateful, she noticed a pervasive posture of gratitude that began to permeate her vision of the world. She found herself overwhelmingly grateful for the absurdly quotidian and domestic aspects of her life. Among many others, Ann points out how the Greek word for “thanksgiving”, eucharisteo, is where we get the word the word “Eucharist”, another name for communion, or the Lord’s Supper. I think it’s fair to say that there is a deep relationship between a grateful outlook, and a deep intimacy with God.
In 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman recounts a study done on gratitude in which the subjects were split into three different groups. One group was assigned to spend a few moments weekly writing only about five things for which they were grateful, one group wrote about five things that annoyed them, and the last group recounted five events that happened to them. “Compared to those in either the ‘annoyed’ or the ‘events’ group, those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier – and they even exercised more.” This study highlights how gratitude is a force-multiplier: a seemingly small investment of taking time every week to reflect on things worthy of gratitude creates a tremendous splash in a large portion of our lives; it shifts our vision, helps with motivation and perseverance, and even gets us to be more physically active.
Just think of it: by taking just minutes every week to reflect on a few things that made us grateful, we can deeply sculpt and change the worlds that we inhabit, because of how it transforms our vision. This has some profound practical repercussions on our daily lives. If you only need to invest a small amount of intentional time each week to create a significant improvement in gratitude, what would be nurtured by taking time every day to be intentionally thankful. Like every other desirable habit, it requires practice in order for it to take root and grow. We need to exercise these muscles in order for us to become dynamically thankful. Then we increasingly move beyond merely appreciating components of our life; our lives become a song of gratitude in which the rhythms of eucahristeo and gratitude change the very world we live in.
We then live in the immense white sea of mercy.