Class 3: Living In Gratitude- A Most Perfect Sight of Past, Present and Future

In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God” –1 Thessalonians 5:18

Intention for this class

The intention for this class is to focus on GRATITUDE and the way it can bring about inner changes in our lives. We will explore the nature of gratitude—what it is and why it is so important as a spiritual practice. We will also have the opportunity to experience gratitude as we practice re-seeing our parents and appreciating our partners.

Spiritual Foundation

The spiritual foundation for exploring the theme of gratitude is expressed in the commandment, “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12). Honoring one’s parents is a spiritual practice found in all world religions. It invites us to see—or perhaps re-see—our parents through the eyes of compassion and understanding, to appreciate their good qualities, and to be grateful for the gifts we have received directly or indirectly through them.

Looking at this commandment more carefully, we note that the dictionary defines “honor” as to hold in high regard and to greatly respect. Interestingly, the word “respect” comes from the Latin specere meaning “to see.” Our words “spectacles” and “spectators” come from the same origin. However, the word “respect” contains the Latin prefix re meaning “again.” So to “respect” is to “re-see” or to “look back again.”

As we have already pointed out, the literal sense of this commandment asks us to simply honor our father and mother—to look back again with compassion and understanding re-seeing their good qualities and the honorable principles that governed their lives, and to notice how these qualities have become a part of our spiritual inheritance.

At another level, this commandment asks us to appreciate all of our life-givers—those who have inspired, consoled, and encouraged us throughout our lives. This might include a friend, teacher, coach, or relative—but most importantly, our spouse. To the extent that we honor them, our focus will be on appreciating rather than complaining, and on being grateful rather than resentful. We will no longer need to suppress, repress, or forget. Instead, our memories will become filled with positive associations of the deepest kind. In the present, our parents and spouses will be honored, and we will feel blessed. As we continue to practice this spiritual discipline, we will be living in gratitude.

Spiritually speaking, the Biblical phrase “your days will be long” refers to the spiritual sunshine that flows directly into our lives, enlightening our minds with the light of wisdom, and filling our hearts with the warmth of love. In other words, to the extent that we practice appreciation and gratitude, God gives us longer states of loving kindness (spiritual heat) and wise discernment (spiritual light) in our relationships. Our “days”—states of feeling sincere appreciation and deeply felt gratitude—become longer and longer. Conversely, our states of feeling “cold and distant” from our partner and “in the dark” about how to improve our relationship, will be shorter and shorter. Whenever appreciation and gratitude become the foundation of our spiritual practice, we will be standing on Holy Ground. This is the Promised Land.

Psychological Foundation

In 1998, Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, attended a conference on The Classical Sources of Human Strength.  It was an attempt to look at human behavior in a new way. No longer would the major emphasis be on mental illness and what makes people weak and miserable, but rather on mental health and what makes people strong and happy. The classical sources of human strength chosen for that historic conference were Wisdom, Hope, Love, Spirituality, Gratitude, and Humility.

Each psychologist who came to the conference was invited to present on one of these sources. Emmons was hoping to report on humility but was assigned to report on gratitude instead. The more he explored the field of gratitude, the more excited he became about his topic. He began to notice that gratitude was not just one of the classical sources of strength. It might, in fact, be the very foundation of all the other virtues. As the Roman philosopher Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue. It is the parent of all other virtues.” 

Inspired by the possibilities that were contained within the science of gratitude, Emmons set up a research project in which his subjects filled out extensive self-reports on how they felt about themselves, about others, and about life in general. After these inventories were completed, the subjects were divided into three groups and given the assignment to keep journals over the next several weeks. The first group, called the “Hassle” group was asked to record their daily “hassles,” those things that upset or irritated them during the day. It could include things like a burned dinner, failure to find a parking place, running out of toothpaste, etc. A second group was told to report on things that they were grateful for during the day. This was the “Gratitude” group.  The third group was the “Neutral” group. They, too, were told to write down their experiences each day, but they were given no instruction as to whether or not they should accentuate the negative or positive aspects of their experience.

This experiment has been replicated several times with participants doing the process for as little as two weeks and for as long as ten weeks. In every case the results were the same. Those people who had kept the gratitude journals reported feeling happier, healthier, more alert, and more optimistic than participants in the control groups. In fact, their happiness levels, as compared to their initial self-reports, rose twenty-five percent. Participants in the gratitude group also reported that they were exercising more—1.5 hours more per week than those in the Hassle group.  Apparently, focusing on gratitude rather than hassles gave them the extra energy and determination to devote more time to exercise! 

In his research conclusions, Emmons said, “The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness.”  He also adds, “To the extent that gratitude helps an individual direct their attention to blessings they have and away from things they lack, this should decrease the likelihood of depression . . . While depression treatments have historically emphasized correcting negative thoughts . . . a practice of gratitude could help develop a more positive way of thinking about life events.” (Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, 40)

Emmons' book includes the brain research of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of California. Emmons writes: “Our brains are wired to prevent the emotional confusion that would result from the simultaneous activation of opposite emotional states.”  In other words, we cannot be happy and sad at the same time; we cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time. As Emmons puts it, “The parts of the brain that are active when positive emotions are experienced are not the parts of the brain that are active when the person feels depressed or anxious or vice versa.  Rather, each type of emotion is controlled by different hemispheres—the left prefrontal region is more active in happiness, whereas the right prefrontal region is more active during negative emotions” (New Science of Gratitude, 75)

Emmons is not the only researcher in the field of gratitude and brain connections, but he is a leading one. Scientists and psychologists are now collaborating to produce more studies, all of which are confirming the power of gratitude and the importance of creating new associative patterns as a way of improving mental health and physical well-being.

In an interview with “Sharp Brains,” a brain fitness center, Emmons was asked,” What are the three key messages that you would like readers to take away from your book?”  He said: "First, the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve - a few hours writing a gratitude journal over three weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, that cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time".

Emmons ends his research findings on a personal note. He tells about a letter he received from a 78 year old man who told him that his whole life had been changed after reading the book, Words of Gratitude for Mind Body and Soul, by Emmons together with Joanna Hill. The man’s relationships with his wife, children and grandchildren had all radically changed for the better. As Emmons puts it, “I remember thinking, ‘This is why I do what I do.’ For people like him—people who avail themselves of the transformational power or gratitude. Gratitude is a new way of seeing.” (New Science of Gratitude, 208)

Putting it together

The spiritual practice of honoring our parents invites us to see—or perhaps re-see—our parents through the eyes of compassion and understanding, to appreciate their good qualities, and to be grateful for the gifts we have received directly or indirectly through them. Gratitude involves a conscious choice, and this is what makes it a spiritual practice. To the extent that we practice appreciation and gratitude, particularly with our spouse, we find ourselves in longer states of loving kindness and wise discernment—truly the Promised Land.

Psychologists tell us much the same thing. Studies on gratitude show that cultivating habits of gratitude through re-seeing the past and appreciating the present makes us happier and healthier. The research clearly demonstrates that when we reframe disturbing past events in positive ways, we can be free of their negative associations. Memories that would have previously triggered complaints and resentments, now come back to us in a new form, connected to new feelings that are more understanding and more loving.

The results are that those who practice gratitude reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. They are more alert and more energized. People who feel grateful are even more likely to feel loved. Present moments become more joyful and more peaceful. 

When we live in gratitude as a spiritual practice, we invite God to direct our sight. We see our childhood experiences with new eyes; we see our partners as the beautiful people we fell in love with—and are still in love with. Filled with gratitude for all we have been given, and filled with appreciation for all we have now, we look towards the future with optimism and with a sense of excitement for all we will be able to give. 

The Assignment

Living in Gratitude: A Most Perfect Sight of Past, Present, and Future.

In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God. –1 Thessalonians 5:18

Honor your parents. Together with your spouse, enter the holy ground of finding and articulating the good qualities ineach of your parents or primary caregivers. You may choose to use deep listening. Strive to re-see any negative tendencies. Then notice how these qualities and tendencies are in you and how they can be developed in positive ways.

Play TAG with your partner. Take time to express heartfelt Thanksgiving, Appreciation, and Gratitude.  (TAG)

Keep a gratitude journal.  Each day record at least five things for which you are thankful, appreciative and/or grateful. Notice even the smallest things—especially those in your relationship.