For much of my life I have been a ‘glass half-empty’ negative kind of person. I am not proud of that. Given a choice I will tend to find my mind drifting towards the worst case scenario. When they were younger some of my children gave me the nickname “Pudleglum”.
Puddleglum is a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ children’s novel, “The Silver Chair”. He is caricature of pessimissim and a bastion of gloomy fortitude. (see post What Are The Forms of Major Depressive Disorder? and my own personal struggle with depressive thinking at the post Just As I Am).
However, over the years I have learnt there are certain habits and choices I can make that can profoundly influence my state of mind on a moment-by-moment basis. One of the most foundational is the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude. I share my experience with you here for you to see if there is anything that resonates with you and you feel you can apply in your own life.
In November 2008 I went to hear a lecture by the psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar at an elite private school called Wellington College. In many ways that evening was a life-defining moment for me. At that evening I was challenged by Tal Ben-Sahar keeping a daily journal every night for several years. In that journal he recorded at least 3 things that he was grateful for. I was so inspired that evening I made a decision, with the help of God’s grace, to do that as well.
Every night before going to bed I write in my journal “Thank you, Lord…” and then start the process of scanning through my day to think of at least 3 things that I am grateful for. Some days I write down 10 or even 15 things, but every day has at least 3 things. They don’t necessarily have to be anything major or life-changing. The smallest things can be a source of gratitude – a conversation with a friend, playing with your child or a good meal. I see this as an exercise in developing and strengthening my gratitude muscles.
Gratitude does not come naturally, but it is such an important discipline worth developing. It is useful in many ways. For example it brings perspective. An old saying goes:
“I cried I had no shoes until I met the man who had no feet.”
The apostle Paul in so many of his New Testament letters starts with exclamations of praise and gratitude for those whom he is writing to. Indeed one of the strongest messages in the Bible as a whole is to be thankful. Two particular passages illustrate this.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 from the New International Version translation of the original Greek:
Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
The other important principle about gratitude that comes from Bible is that we are not to hide our thanksgiving secretly in our hearts. We are called, even commanded, to express gratitude to God and to others.
In the English translation of the Hebrew psalms, this is how King David expresses it:
That my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.
I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you,
The fascinating thing is that thousands of years later the research backs up what King David has been saying. Here is how the psychologist Henry Cloud puts it:
“When we are thankful, and also when we express it to others, we are happier. People who express gratitude are not only happier but have more energy and a better outlook on the future; they’re even physically healthier, having fewer physical ailments than those who don’t express gratitude. They have less emotional and psychological maladies as well. Also they show more relational capacities and are less envious and less materialistic.”
It has been consistently shown that when people are given structured gratitude exercises such as writing down things in life they are grateful for, keeping a gratitude journal or simply calling and visiting people to express gratitude to them, they become happier as they do these things. God has wired our brains to respond and come alive when we practice certain activities like giving thanks. Our brain chemistry changes in a positive way compared to when we are say envious or resentful.
How do you incorporate gratitude into your life? What are the changes you could make in the light of this post? Please feel free to share your thoughts and reflections.