I wrote a post for the Ethical Co-op newsletter briefly mentioning gratitude. Since it’s short, I’ll quote it here in full:
Gratitude is a key to happiness. When we are more grateful, we are happier. Gratitude is also much like love. It’s easy to apply conditionally – to be grateful for wonderful food, or wonderful people and experiences. It’s not so easy to apply unconditionally. How can we be grateful when people and experiences don’t seem so wonderful?
The key seems to be practising gratitude directed at these very things that don’t seem so wonderful. So that soon, gratitude is not just being grateful for something pleasant, but a permanent experience. Instead of “I am grateful for”, it becomes just “I am grateful”.
It got some positive responses, in particular from one person who’d just before receiving the mail destroyed her laptop, but also got an interesting response from someone disagreeing and got me considering the issue further.
Her response, in full:
I enjoy reading your weekly thoughts each week; this week’s however made me pause.
Like you I believe that appreciation/gratitude is key to living a self-aware, meaningful, curious and joyful life, but I do not think it can be applied wholesale to every aspect of life. Chronic and terminal illness, poverty, acts of violence, in our lives and the lives of others, are not things for which I feel feel grateful, thankful or appreciative. I think gratitude is the wrong word in these contexts, and smacks of what are for me empty religious platitudes regarding fate and god’s greater purpose.
Bad things are a part of life and the human experience, but nonetheless do not need to be embraced, and common sense suggests they be avoided and minimized for the sake of happiness wherever possible, which I think goes against the act of gratitude.
Perhaps a wiser choice of words might be serenity or peace. I like the humanist version of the serenity prayer:
Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I think my phrase practising gratitude directed at these very things that don’t seem so wonderful wasn’t well put. In particular, the word things. I am also not talking about fate, or a greater purpose. I am not saying that we should be grateful for poverty, or be grateful that someone is murdered. Let me clarify.
The serenity prayer is wonderful, and I think of it often when considering actions. But it deals with the external world, where we are limited. Some things we can change, and some things we can’t.
When it comes to the internal world, we can change our perspective on anything.
I was lucky enough to attend a retreat with Rob Nairn recently. Rob is a widely-regarded meditation teacher, and his definition of mindfulness came to mind.
He describes mindfulness as being aware of what’s happening, as it happens, without prejudice. The first two parts should be clear, but the third is important, as prejudice is what we apply all the time, internally.
When a thought arises, we may like the thought, dislike it, or be indifferent to it, but all are prejudices and take us away from being present with the thought that arises.
Similarly, with outside experience. Something happens in the world. We apply the same prejudices internally. We receive a promotion. We like it. We are mugged. We dislike it.
But let’s take a step back. Before we like or dislike, there’s simply the experience. What is happening is happening. As it happens, our like or dislike is of no consequence – the experience is happening. We may change what we can, or accept what we can’t, but still, the experience happens.
No matter how unpleasant the experience, it still seems to me that the best approach is to be grateful. We can use every experience in a positive way. If I’m attacked, I can be grateful that I am alive, be grateful for the reminder of how precious life is, and be grateful for the way it invigorates my actions and relations with other people, realising that each moment together may be our last.
And what if it happens to someone else? What if a friend is murdered? Is it really possible to feel gratitude?
Gratitude is not positive thinking, or trying not to think negative thoughts, which only results in the opposite. All the grief and anger which arise should be experienced, not suppressed.
But gratitude is helpful attitude. We are not grateful for them being murdered, we are grateful of the time we spent together, of the experiences we shared, of what they’ve shown us through their own unique lense.
Gratitude is an internal attitude. How wonderful it is to exist! External circumstances are of no consequence – we are not grateful only if something goes according to our preconceived ideas of how it should, and only then.
We are, simply, grateful!