Tuesday, December 20, 2011
When Gratitude Does Not Bring Happiness
"Finish your dinner and be grateful you have something to eat when other children in the world are starving!" Well, we didn't feel grateful. Just guilty.
"No, you can't have a pair of new sneakers. Your old ones are still fine. Be grateful that you have so much when more unfortunate children have so little." No feelings of gratitude resulted from this either - just more guilt and disappointment.
I remember as a little girl, learning that Jesus died a grueling death for our sins and that we were forever grateful to him for that. I felt ashamed and fearful and not grateful at all.
As we grow up, our associations with gratitude and counting-our-blessings often creates very mixed emotions in us. We secretly suspect that there is a great lack of gratitude within us, and a shadow of moral judgment accompanies that suspicion.
There have been many publications and self-help books on the theme of “finding a way to happiness” by counting your blessings at the end of every day and writing down the things you are grateful for. So, if you have had a rotten day, thinking about all the things that are good in your life will make you feel grateful - which equals happiness - and you'll sleep with the innocence of a baby. The idea is that eventually, with continued practice, you’ll focus only on your blessings and will thus able to ignore all the negative and hurtful things that do occur in the average person's daily life.
The problem with these happiness-through-gratitude exercises is that they can feel trite, and even naïve. There are days when we can't make ourselves feel grateful for a damn thing. I would like to offer a more genuine, and realistic, picture of “living a grateful life.” Let's change the word “grateful” to savor. Savoring comes naturally, without guilt or judgment at any level. Being aware and paying attention to the things you enjoy is savoring your life as it happens.
I remember how every Christmas morning, after all the presents were opened, Mom and I would open the box of chocolates that came every year from my grandmother in Germany. These were always special to us. Mom and I would each choose three pieces, sit one on each end of the couch with our feet stretched out, and very slowly and deliberately savor each tiny little bite with the occasional "yum yum" in testament to the goodness. There was real gratitude to Oma in this, which we experienced through savoring.
I have written before about how much my mother dislikes cooking, and the clever ways she has found to eat well without going to restaurants. I usually invite her to dinner at least twice a week, and she is - above all others - my favorite person to cook for. Her face reflects the pleasure she finds in every bite, and she likes to note all the different spices she detects on her tongue. Then she reminds us of a time in history, when only kings and rich merchants were lucky enough to experience these flavors. We all become more aware of what we are tasting and enjoy it more. As Mom savors the meal she didn't have to cook, she is quite obviously grateful. (She says so too.)
Another thing Mom and I share and savor, and I hope to pass this on to my children, is our love for Christmas decorations on the outside of other people’s homes. When I was little, my parents were relatively poor, and glad to have enough for Christmas on the inside. So, to increase our Christmas spirit even more, we would take nightly rides beyond the neighborhood to marvel at the beauty of the lights. We were amazed at the effort people made to bring joy to all who drove by. We picked our favorites, continuously changing our minds as we came upon bigger and even more complicated displays. We would shout, "Thank You!" to anyone still working outside, as we became infected by the magic of that special time. We felt grateful to the many people who worked so hard and brought us so much joy. We still do.
When you can savor the good company of a friend, conversations around favorite memories, or the flavor of a really good cookie, you are living in gratitude naturally. That's what it's all about, and that's all there is to it.
Past studies have shown that grateful people are in general happier. This is the kind of gratitude they are talking about - enjoying to the fullest the things you love and being completely present to it.