Research on gratitude summarised by Dr Robert Emmons has been conducted on thousands of people around the world. Those who practice gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system, and have stronger social relationships than those who don't practice gratitude. Giving thanks makes people happier and more resilient, it strengthens relationships, it improves health, and it reduces stress.
The trouble is, you might doubt whether it is possible to cultivate a grateful attitude when you feel anything but thankful? Five obstacles stand in the way to better appreciating the good things in life.
1. Lack of time for reflection
However busy you are e.g. seeing to the kids, earning a living, doing all the practical chores, chasing your tail, it is surely possible to create a little time just once a week to recall some good things you have experienced, and put pen to paper to focus your mind.
2. Unrealistic expectation
Instead of feeling disappointed about big things not happening for you, why not start noticing the small things that you can be more appreciative of, like the perfect parking spot you had on a cold day, the unexpected pound coins you found in your pocket and the pleasant act of courtesy from someone you don't really know. Try not to take for granted the good things you have got.
"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus
3. Lack of action
Rather than trying and then failing to feel thankful, you could try speaking words of thanks out loud -- whether to a friend, the person who you wish you could thank or in prayer to your idea of God. Saying or doing something can focus on and thus develop that fleeting feeling. One possibility is to write notes to your family and friends to express your gratitude even for small favours. Religious people share a thankful prayer of grace before a meal.
4. Believing you have nothing to be grateful for
Another way is to stop and use your imagination. If you were to pretend to yourself that you have lost some of the things that you take for granted, such as your home, your car, your ability to walk, or anything that currently gives you comfort, you could in your mind's eye then picture getting each of these things back, one by one: consider how grateful you would be for each and every one.
Similarly, you might ask yourself to what extent you notice the precious things around? Things like the beauty in nature, the goodness in altruistic action, the innocent sphere of a baby.
The spiritual writer Roger Walsh has pointed out that this blindness to the sacred in the world, in others and in oneself, is particularly dramatic in modern Western culture, largely due to the influence of science. I feel we are so bombarded by the scientific description of the universe as a great meaningless machine and the account of evolution as a random series of events, that these views can easily be seen to be the natural and only way of looking at things. Are we not in danger of living in a disenchanted world seemingly stripped of significance, spirit and purpose? To appreciate and give thanks for the sacred requires an additional way of knowing to the one scientists use. A perception of the soul.
The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. (Helen Keller)
5. Negative feelings
Some opposing feelings are incompatible. For example you either resent someone or feel appreciation for them. You can't be both angry and thankful at the same time or both envious and grateful. The negative feeling is incompatible with the positive one. One tip I find helpful, is to first tackle the negative. Rather than sweeping a serious problem under the carpet, address it openly by expressing and resolving feelings of anger with the other person. Then you can make a conscious choice about which way you are going to turn. You either can nurse your hurts or look for their good points.
In their book Rise Above It, Ray and Star Silverman say that, in giving thanks for our parents, we are also giving thanks to the divine source of all that is good in life. However, there is a danger that we might cling to childhood wounds, however real or imagined, like sacred scars. If so, they will discolour and distort our attitudes to other people and the experience of life itself. If we have seen anger in our parents we might ask ourselves whether this can be re-seen as determination, or a great concern for our welfare. Perhaps stubbornness or inflexibility should be re-seen as strength or conviction. In other words you can be a sort of tv remote control and change mind channels at will: the negative or the positive news channel.
Emanuel Swedenborg the spiritual philosopher used the "as if " phrase. He wrote that anything what is good within us is usually felt as if it is our own. However, he maintains that this is a necessary illusion for the sake of our sense of inner freedom of personal choice. Actually when the religious minded person comes to think about it, he or she acknowledges that all good things come from the source of goodness itself rather than from ones own merit. And so it is to this Source that one gives thanks. According to this view, even a thankful heart -- which counts one's blessings -- is a spiritual gift that one can receive.
I praise the Lord here today. I know that all my talent and all my ability comes from him, and without him I'm nothing and I thank him for his great blessing. (Ernie Harwell)
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.
He edits Spiritual Questions a free eZine that explores links between spiritual philosophy and the comments and questions of spiritual seekers. You can share your views and find out more about feeling good, personal well-being & spiritual healing
His book Heart, Head and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.
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