If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. Meister [Johannes] Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic (1260 – 1328)
A few days ago, I wrote a letter to a dead man. The man, Dr. Larson, was one of my professors fifty years ago at the University of Tennessee. The letter described a thoughtful, courageous, unrequested act of kindness he had performed on my behalf which resulted in me getting a “B” in a class rather than a “D” or “F.” I never thanked him properly. I decided it was time.
Why? Not for him. I realized he might not be alive anymore (I found out later that he died last year). I did it mostly for me…and for you.
Gratitude requires noticing something good you have received from a source outside of yourself. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism have all endorsed gratitude for hundreds of years.
In the last twenty years gratitude has become a popular area of research and recommended path to the good life. A recent seventy-two-page summary of studies links gratitude to almost every positive outcome imaginable. Want better health? Be more grateful. Stronger relationships? More optimism and resilience? More compassion, patience, humility? Less sadness and anxiety, less materialism, less envy, and social comparison? How about a little relief from pain and some more energy? Searching for self-control? Same answer in every case. Be. More. Grateful. With a few possible caveats. Gratitude is a major silver bullet, an almost magic method, for journeying to the good life.
After reading this summary of positive findings as well as a newish book called The Gratitude Project (which is a collection of essays and research findings), I dug out my old gratitude journal. I noticed that I made six entries. Hmmm. I do still mentally count my blessings often, but researchers say most people get more of a bang if we write things down. One of the newer findings is that many people get a bigger boost if they only journal once a week.
Like keeping a gratitude journal, but slightly different is writing down three good things that happens to you each day. Afterwards, researchers suggest that we write about why they happened. Both practices get at our predicament as human beings. We get habituated to the good in our lives. We take our water, friends, clean air, electricity, roads, homes, friends, and family for granted. We must do something to shake off that unhelpful adaptation.
The gratitude letter is another, powerful way to see the good. We are encouraged to mentally look back and notice those who have helped us, especially those we have never properly thanked. We write the letter and, ideally, read the letter aloud to the person we want to thank. I have known about this gratitude booster for years, and I have thought a lot about Dr. Larson.
I just could not seem to make myself write the letter. It seemed awkward, embarrassing, and I was not persuaded by the older research that writing a letter would really do much for me or for the person I wanted to thank. However, after seeing large effects in later studies, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone so that I could tell you how it felt.
How I got myself to do the letter was to tell myself to do one step at a time. It would be a step forward to simply describe and acknowledge the kindness that was shown to me. That would not be so hard. Afterwards I could track Dr. Larson down. Then I could decide if I wanted to send it or read it aloud to him.
Just the writing of the letter seemed to boost my thoughts of gratitude not only for Dr. Larson, but for all those professors and people throughout my life, even those somewhat on the periphery, who have put themselves out for me.
Then I did look for Dr. Larson. Turns out he became somewhat famous – authored highly regarded academic books. I thought about who he was and what it took for him to put his reputation in jeopardy to stand up for me. Thinking not only what others have done, but what they may have sacrificed on our behalf can boost our gratitude for our fellow human beings in general. I feel sad that I missed an opportunity to talk to Dr. Larson, but I have new resolve to not wait too long to write other letters.
Another gratitude practice, which you may not have heard as much about, has popped up powerfully and naturally for me lately as I have aged. It has a long descriptive name, “mental subtraction of positive people or events.” It is a thought experiment. You imagine what your life would be like if a specific, positive thing had not happened to you - like meeting a person who became a good friend or a beloved spouse. I find myself in bed many nights feeling deeply grateful for the main man in my life. What if I had never met him? It is easy to celebrate and appreciate having him right there beside me for forty-seven years (this month).
However, I did mention caveats earlier. Some fear that being overly grateful could keep us from addressing injustices, make us stay in abusive relationships too long, keep us laboring in unfair working conditions. That is something to consider for sure, but research so far has not found that to be a likely outcome. Also keep in mind that looking around and finding the good can provide us with inner and outer resources including the physical and psychological energy to move forward.
It is a normal part of being human to look back on our lives, even our collective history, and see more headwinds (challenges) than tailwinds (blessings), but we can change that by practicing gratitude. If you are curious about your current level of gratitude, google “gratitude quiz,” some of the best ones pop up first. If you are ready to jump right in, dig out that gratitude journal, or write a gratitude letter, or imagine your life without the positive, or try out your own idea. If you need more motivation, you may want to read The Gratitude Project.
How might you experiment with boosting your gratitude and Journey to The Good Life?