It was back in 1996 that Oprah Winfrey announced she was starting a gratitude journal. Every night she would ask herself, "What am I truly grateful for in my life?" And then she would list five things in her journal. Looking back, she was prescient about the need to acknowledge what we are grateful for in our life.
There is now a plethora of websites devoted to what might be called "gratitude studies." Work by Giacomo Bono, adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and a leading scientific expert on gratitude, represents the basic conclusions regarding gratitude and children.
Bono writes, "More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world."
Unfortunately that is not as easy as it sounds. Creating what Emmons calls an "attitude of gratitude" is obstructed by a sense of entitlement and gets crowded out by emotions such as envy, resentment and regret.
I wasn't really fascinated by the research itself. I was shocked by the fact that there is so much research on gratitude. That we need this type of research is sad. The research tells us our children are losing their sense of gratitude. I believe it is because they have lost their connection to the teachings of ethical monotheism — teachings that counterbalance one's sense of self-importance.
Secular humanists have played a role in this. They preach that we don't need religion to teach morals. It's all a matter of common sense, so of course we will be grateful—because it makes sense. The research has proven them wrong. They have been leaders in disparaging religion and demeaning the Bible, the book that reminds us over and over to think about others, to rise above our selfish desires. It is filled with admonitions to care for the other, the stranger, the widow and orphan, to visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the poor and bury the dead.
"Come,you that are blessed by my Father,inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." —Matthew 25:34-36
I completed my residency in clinical pastoral education at Toronto Hospital around the time that Oprah was so excited about her gratitude journal. I had been called to the room of a young mother who had just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Her husband and two children were in the room with her. They were all distraught. I pulled a chair up to her bedside and listened. "Why me?" she asked. "I'm a good mother. I take care of my children. Why me and not the woman down the street? She's never home with her kids. Why me?"
I didn't utter a word. I was thinking, "Why not you?" That may sound harsh but, in fact, why does anyone feel they deserve only joy in life? And more upsetting for me was her desire to inflict the pain on someone she felt was less deserving of joy.
Stories like that made me think: How often do we say aloud after something extraordinarily wonderful happens, "Why, God? Why me? Why did you choose me, to anoint my head with oil, so much so that my cup runneth over?" It's as if we just accept blessings as part of the everyday course of living, but we question sadness and pain because we assume that we deserve better.
"A moment's adversity and pleasures are forgotten." —ecclesiasticus 11:27
When I was growing up we had a blue Tzedakah (charity) box at home. We collected our change and when the box was full, we gave it to charity. The box was in full view in the kitchen all the time, perhaps to remind us each day of our good fortune, our blessings, even if we didn't have the right words at such a young age to express those feelings. But it was a lesson that remained with me all my life, and over the years, I discovered there is great joy in giving. Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish philosopher, teacher and doctor, wrote that the greatest act of charity is one between two people who have no knowledge of each other. To this day, my greatest joy comes from making donations anonymously. But it started with small steps, at home.
When our ancestors first stepped forth out of the cave to explore and to hunt, they faced many frightening moments, especially when they would come upon a lion, a rather large and — more important — carnivorous animal. Would the hunter be the predator or the prey? We know from neuroscience that our ancestor would have an immediate physiological response: His heart rate would go up; his breathing would become more laboured; his intestines would clench; hormones would shoot through his body; and adrenalin would flow. His body would be preparing for fight or flight. He was physically preparing for battle: for his life and for food for his family.
Now, imagine his feelings after that encounter. He is alive. His body responds by normalizing his breathing and blood pressure; his intestines relax; the adrenalin is reabsorbed; and his legs are probably shaking, perhaps to the point that he collapses, much as a marathon runner might at the end of a 26-mile run. He is on his knees. His head is probably bent because it feels like it weighs a ton, so he holds it in his hands.
And now he can think about what happened and about what could have happened. And then he releases a sigh of relief, what Edward Sapir in Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech calls an involuntary utterance, an indication of an overflow of emotion, an instinctive cry that is universal.
This primal cry has a name. It is the cry of gratitude. Any time our ancestor thinks about that experience with the lion, he will relive the emotion; he will experience fear and then fall on his knees in gratitude to his Creator as if it had just happened moments ago.
And he will pass this primal instinct of gratitude on to his descendants, a genetic memory.
We know this from the work of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California, who noted that there are markers (patterns of nerve-cell activity) in the brain for things we see as well as for feelings produced by what we see. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, noted that there is a "complex system in which patterns of nerve cell activation are created and stored, and in which life experiences mingle with genetics, constantly shifting the cellular pathways and [determining] all our thoughts, movements, feelings and functions."
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, summarized patterns of thought this way: We think about something and activate thought circuitry; we experience a feeling, for example joy, gratitude or sorrow, as a result of that thought and trigger our emotional circuitry; we have a physiological response to that feeling, such as increased blood pressure, and trigger our physiological circuitry; and then we act — our multidimensional circuitry.
It takes only 90 seconds for the physiological response of fight or flight to run through the body. After that we choose our emotional response. We can choose gratitude.
One would think this would be an easy choice. But from gratitude research, we know it isn't. It seems negative emotions are more familiar, and we feel strong and powerful when we tap into them. I know that feeling. I remember some of my darkest moments, and it was anger that kept me alive. I embraced it and chewed on it. I held it close. There is no room for love when you are filled with hate; there is no room for gratitude when you are filled with anger. One has to be ready to let go, to embrace gratitude. Gratitude is an acknowledgement that we are not alone. It opens us up to others, to those who helped us along the way. I think to express gratitude one must have a modicum of humility.