How can I be happy when everything in my life is going wrong? How can I be content when I don’t have everything I want?
Those were some of the questions I found myself asking last summer, after a couple projects I had been working on for years headed towards failure. As I faced an uncertain future, acute anxiety for certain people that I loved, together with some seemingly insurmountable problems in my personal life, I wanted to know how to find peace and contentment. As I went over and over the problem in my mind, it seemed that there could be only one answer: I can only be happy and content once God gives me all the stuff I want.
With these questions (and what I thought was the answer) fresh in my mind, I took a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex England. This peaceful Eastern Orthodox monastery, nestled in the quiet countryside of Essex’s Maldon District, seemed like the perfect place for God to answer my petitions. Here is a picture of one of the monastery buildings:
I stayed eight days at the monastery, working and praying alongside the monks and nuns who lived there. Through a number of things that happened during my time at the monastery, I began to see that our happiness in life does not depend on getting the things we want, but on being grateful for what we already have. That may sound like an obvious Christian truism, but sometimes it is obvious truths that we find the most challenging to truly believe and apply.
If the necessity for gratitude is such an obvious truism, why do we suffer from an epidemic of grumbling? What I learned at the monastery, and from the subsequent research I conducted, is that the reason grumbling gets the upper-hand over gratitude in most of our lives, and the reason so many of us are miserable as a result, is not primarily because bad things happen to us. On the contrary, some of the most grateful people I’ve met were those who suffered the most. Rather, what I found is that a life of gratitude arises from learning to look at the world in a different way – the right way. I learned that moving from a life of miserable complaining to a life of joyful gratitude is about learning to “reframe” how we see the world and how we perceive our experiences.
If at this point you’re thinking that this is going to be one more inspirational charge to “count-your-blessings and be happy”, be assured that this is not. In fact, what I discovered directly debunks the type of artificial optimism that we often associate (somewhat unfairly) with the figure Pollyanna from Eleanor Porter’s famous novel. I found that truly grateful people are not escapists who minimized the pain in their life, nor were they optimists who tricked their brains into feeling better by whitewashing their suffering with a sentimental gloss. Rather, I discovered that grateful people were able to put an accurate valuation on life’s evils as well as life’s blessings, and to move forward in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances through a moment-by-moment awareness of life’s higher purpose.
I wish I could say that what I learned enabled me to completely transition from a life of grumbling to a life of gratitude. The best I can claim for myself is that I was enabled to begin an important journey—or more appropriately, a pilgrimage—towards a life of gratefulness. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to my experience at the monastery.
I’ll be Happy if
I’ve always enjoyed making lists. Once when I was a boy I made a wish-list of things I hoped people would buy me for my birthday and Christmas. I gave a copy of the list to my mother, who read it and then asked, “So if you had all these things would you be happy?” I thought about her question for a moment, and then replied, somewhat hesitatingly, “yes.”
As I grew older, I discovered more and more things I wanted, some of which I even believed I had a right to have. As with my childhood wish-list, the assumption remained that if I got everything I wanted, then I would finally be happy.
It never occurred to me that joy was attainable without having lots of stuff, purely by being grateful. I knew that Christians had an obligation to be grateful, but somehow I thought that gratefulness was the end-result of having everything go well in one’s life. If there was something wrong in my life that I couldn’t fix, I would drive myself to exhaustion by going over it again and again in my mind, as if I could fix a problem simply by worrying about it.
I was at a particularly dark point of discontent when I traveled to the monastery of Saint John the Baptist last June. At that time, a number of projects I had been working on for years were falling apart, in addition to the fact that I was facing some seemingly insurmountable problems in my personal life. As I approached the monastery in a taxi, my gloomy interior condition seemed to contrast with the peaceful greenery of the meadows and woodland in which the community was nestled. Here is a picture I took of some of the woodland near the monastery:
I arrived at the monastery just after lunch on Saturday. Father Bartholomew, my contact who had helped arranged my stay, greeted me. I’ve always been somewhat in awe of monks and nuns, who renounce worldly things in order to devote their lives to prayer and ascetic disciplines, but Father Bartholomew’s down-to-earth manor quickly put me at ease.
“You missed lunch,” he said. “We’ve just eaten.”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “I ate a huge breakfast before I left.” I explained how I had heard stories about people almost starving to death at monasteries because of the frequent fasting, and that I had decided to fill up before coming.
“Oh, you won’t have to worry about starving here” Father Bartholomew put in reassuringly. “We spend more time eating than we do praying.” Then he added, “come with me.”
Father Bartholomew took me to the other side of the monastery, through the kitchen where the nuns were cleaning up, and into a beautifully decorated hall. “This is the special dining room where the bishop eats when he comes. Sit down and I’ll bring you some left-over food from lunch.”
It made me feel important to sit all alone in the expansive bishop’s hall, while nuns brought me plateful after plateful of food until I couldn’t eat anymore. After my meal, as I sat waiting for Father Bartholomew to return, I admired the artwork on the walls, which told a narrative about Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866–1938). Saint Silouan’s spiritual example had formed the inspiration for his disciple, Elder Sophrony, who started the monastery of Saint John the Baptist in the 1950s.
Father Bartholomew eventually returned, but not before checking that I had received sufficient nourishment. “Come,” he said. “I’ll take you to your accommodation.”
As we walked to the pilgrim’s quarters, I asked Father Bartholomew a pressing question that had been on my mind ever since my arrival. “Father, I need to ask you something,” I said. “What are the rules at this monastery?”
“Rules?” he said, looking at me inquisitively. “There aren’t any rules.”
“Well, tell me about all the procedures here in your community. What do I have to do while I’m here? Is there work I have to do?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “As for procedures, try not to be late for meals.” With that, Father Bartholomew left me.
Alone in the pilgrim’s quarters, I found myself wondering what I would actually do for the next eight days. I had been used to keeping busy all the time with a stream of constant activity, and it felt a bit unnerving to slow down and just be.
The days that followed were some of the most peaceful of my entire life. I spent time going for long walks to pray, joining the monks and nuns in their prayer meetings, taking naps, visiting with the other pilgrims, and of course eating.
With so much time on my hands, I decided to explore the monastery library. Among the books I came across the classic nineteenth-century work, The Way of a Pilgrim. My teenage son Matthew had read the book and recommended it to me shortly after we joined the Orthodox Church in 2013, but I had never actually read it. For the next week, I worked my way through this fascinating book, which chronicles the journey of a Russian pilgrim who wandered from place to place learning the mysteries of interior prayer.
It was through reading The Way of a Pilgrim that I learned my first lesson about gratefulness. The book taught me that true joy arises not from having a life free from hardship, but from cultivating a disposition of contentment for the blessings God has given us. By training ourselves to live in a condition of constant gratefulness, we can find joy in the midst of life’s difficulties without needing to minimize the reality of those difficulties (for example, by believing escapist narratives like “Oh, it’s not really so bad.”). This directly undermines what I call the “I’ll-be-happy-if-myth”, which hinges on the false notion that a life of joy is the end product of getting everything on our want-list.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me return to what I learned from reading The Way of a Pilgrim.
Gratitude and Reframing in The Way of a Pilgrim
We often think (perhaps unconsciously) that joy and suffering are related to each other like two sides of a zero-sum transaction. The types of economic transactions that we call a “zero sum game” are those when the gains of one side are directly correlated to losses on the other side. It’s easy to suppose that hardship and joy are related like this, so that to increase in the one you have to decrease in the other, and visa versa.
The book The Way of a Pilgrim challenges this way of viewing our lives. The book shows that a disposition of gratitude can increase our levels of joy, peace and flourishing even when the external circumstances of our lives are a bunch of crap. The character in this book faced numerous challenges, struggles and temptations, yet his constant gratefulness to God enabled Him to approach all these experiences with a sense of joy.
I was initially interested in reading The Way of a Pilgrim as an opportunity to learn about how to keep inner stillness through the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus prayer is the core of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, and goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” That’s it! Those twelve words, repeated over and over again, have helped countless men and women achieve calmness of mind and inner peace. A shorter version of the Jesus Prayer, which can be synchronized with your breathing, is simply “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” (Some people find it helpful to inhale on the “Lord Jesus Christ” and exhale on the “have mercy on me.”) Learning to silently say the Jesus prayer all the time, even while doing other things, is a way to achieve a sense of peace and stillness to our otherwise turbulent lives.
The Way of a Pilgrim is often recommended to people trying to cultivate this type of interior prayer. However, in focusing on what the book has to say about prayer, it’s easy to overlook an equally valuable aspect of the book, which is that it demonstrates the possibility of living in a state of continual gratitude in the midst of life’s hardships.
While the pilgrim’s suffering is not the main focus of the book, and is mentioned in the narrative almost parenthetically, nevertheless the trials he endured would be enough to break most of us. It would have been understandable, even normal, if the pilgrim had descended into a life of fear, anxiety and self-pity. Consider, he and his wife lost their livelihood and all their money after his wicked brother burned their inn down to the ground. This reduced them to the status of peasants, made worse by the fact that he was unfit for most employment because of being lame in one arm (due, again, to the violence of his wicked brother). As if that was not enough, he suffered enormous heartache when his beloved wife took ill and died. The pain of loneliness was so intense that he would sometimes weep until he became unconscious. Unable to continue living in a place that stirred up his grief by reminding him of his late wife, he took to the road. During his travels, the pilgrim became victim to various misfortunes, including almost dying from frostbite, having his most precious possessions taken by thieves, enduring inclement weather without anywhere to stay, and even getting whipped because of a false accusation. Being penniless and lame, he often went hungry and subsisted entirely on charitable donations. Though these ordeals tested the pilgrim and often resulted in great sorrow, he managed to be extraordinarily resilient, and even joyful. In fact, this poor and suffering pilgrim experienced significantly more joy than most of us will ever know despite all the luxuries of modern life that we have access to.
How can this be? How can someone be happy in spite of being deprived of so many good things? The answer is gratitude.
Perhaps you know someone like this pilgrim, someone whose life has gone wrong in so many different ways, and yet has greater joy than those who have an abundance of external blessings. The existence of these types of people—those who simultaneously have more-than-average suffering, yet also more-than-average happiness—challenges us to rethink the causes of happiness. Why are some Christians joyful despite enduring so much suffering, while joy eludes other Christians on whom God has lavished an abundance of external blessings? The answer to this question suggested in The Way of the Pilgrim, is again that the difference comes down to gratitude. Throughout the book’s narrative we see that being grateful to God can bring peace, calm and joy to any situation, including circumstances that would normally lead to anxiety, stress and grumbling.
The thing that makes The Way of a Pilgrim so inspiring for ordinary people like us is that the pilgrim’s positive outlook on the world did not come naturally, but had to be deliberately cultivated by constantly reminding himself of God’s blessings, sovereignty, and guidance. By continually reminding himself of these realities, the pilgrim gradually learned to reframe the hardships he faced by finding something positive to focus on.
(A parenthetical note about reframing may be helpful here. Reframing is a term that modern psychologists use to describe the technique of disrupting negative thoughts by finding alternative ways to view the same experiences. The practice was advanced by the psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, one of the pioneers of cognitive behavioral therapy, who started using reframing techniques in the 1960s to help patients who had been diagnosed with depression. Also known as “cognitive restructuring”, the technique has been widely successful in helping individuals with negative thoughts to find positive alternatives. The Wikipedia article about reframing tells us how “Beck helped his patients recognize the impact of their negative thoughts, and aided them in shifting their mindset to think more positively—eventually lessening or even getting rid of the patient’s depression. This process was termed cognitive restructuring—the main goal of which was to rethink negative thoughts and turn them into positive thoughts.” Since the middle of last century, there has been a wealth of research on the role that reframing can play in combatting stress, anxiety, depression, and in making us happier and healthier people. Although the psychological literature about reframing is helpful, the temptation is for us to overcomplicate things by becoming so focused on the details that we lose sight of the basic point. At root, what we are talking about is no different to what we find in the Apostle Paul when he told the Roman Christians that we can “glory in tribulations” (Rom 5:3), not because pain is intrinsically good, but because of the positive framework through which the Christian is able to interpret all of life’s hardships: “knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Rom 5:3-5) Reframing also occurred when Paul was in prison and yet was able to write his most joyful letter of all, the letter to the Philippians. Thus, while the formal discipline known as cognitive reframing is associated with pioneers in late 20th-century psychology, the practice itself is far from new and can be found throughout scripture.)
An example of cognitive reframing in The Way of a Pilgrim is that when the pilgrim’s inn was burning to the ground and he stood beside his wife to watch all their earthly belongings go up in flames, the couple looked at each other and exclaimed “Glory be to God! At least the Bible is saved and we have it to comfort us in our sorrow.” Following the destruction of their inn, the pilgrim’s wife had to take on laborious work to support themselves since her crippled husband was incapable of normal labor. He recounts how “she toiled day and night to support me”, yet throughout it all she kept sorrow away through prayer and “the wisdom of the word of God”. In both these cases, we see the pilgrim and his wife “reframing” the events of their lives to bring a positive perspective onto something negative.
After his wife died and the pilgrim took to the road, he continued to practice “cognitive reframing.” The pilgrim recounts how he struggled with melancholy: “But at times I felt downcast that I had no permanent place where I could study peacefully and continuously.” He also became downcast by the possibility of starvation and fatigue. Despite these hardships, he writes, “I resigned myself to the will of God and once again I was happy and at peace.”
When I was at the monastery and I read the above words, I decided to close the book and just meditate on the line “I resigned myself to the will of God and once again I was happy and at peace.” It began to occur to me that learning to accept the will of God may be Lesson Number 1 when it comes to spiritual reframing, since it is a way to take what would otherwise appear to be a negative and purposeless life experience, one that we naturally struggle against, and to turn it into a positive purposeful experience that advances us towards greater peace. Could this be the key to achieving peace and contentment in the midst of uncertainty, hardship and pain?
As I meditated on these ideas, doubts began to flood my mind. Perhaps the only reason the narrator was able to interpret his hardships positively was because he was an extraordinarily pious and naturally holy man. Surely the methods that worked for him couldn’t also work for an ordinary person like me.
With these doubts flying around my mind, I continued to read. As if in response to my concerns, I began to come across passage after passage where the pilgrim found himself lapsing into depressed feelings and anxious thoughts. This was extremely encouraging for me, because it showed that being grateful to God did not come naturally to him. Keeping focused on Christ was not easy for the pilgrim, but had to be deliberately cultivated by constantly reminding his rebellious brain to interpret his hardships in positive terms. One of the ways the pilgrim did this was by reflecting on how his suffering were keeping him humble, or how his difficulties enabled him to better understand and help others:
“Clouds of thoughts overwhelmed me and I remembered the words of John of Carphatos that to help another spiritually one must submit to disgrace, misfortunate, and temptations. So, struggling with these thoughts, I redoubled my prayer and succeeded in dispelling them as I prayed, ‘May God’s will be done! I am ready to suffer all that Christ Jesus permits to come to me for my sinful and proud disposition.’”
As I went for walks in the fields around the monastery, I was struck by how different this spiritual optimism was from the alternatives of escapism and stoicism. Escapism is the orientation which says “I feel fine – these hardships are not that bad. Things are really okay.” By contrast, stoicism is the orientation that copes with hardship by saying “I should not and will not feel anything – it is only my will and reason that matter.” If a person veers towards escapism, they will become numb to the evil of the world. But if a person veers towards stoicism, they will become numb to their emotions, with the result that their capacity to feel will be diminished.
In contrast to both these false alternatives, the pilgrim in the story acknowledged his hardships as being exceedingly painful. For example, he did not try to gloss over the pain he felt when his wife passed away. He never minimized his sufferings by saying “Oh, it doesn’t really matter.” But what he did try to do was to find ways to be grateful to God in the midst of the pain. He did this by constantly reminding himself of the larger spiritual context in which his life was situated. In such a way, he was able to abound in “fervor, gratitude, and love towards the Lord” which led him to consider himself “the happiest man on earth”, and even “as happy as a king”.
The pilgrim learned much about living in a constant state of gratitude through reading the Philokalia—a collection of writings from Eastern Orthodox mystics. In conversing with a Christian judge he met during his travels, he shared the following passage from Saint Peter of Damascus, in which the Saint described the attitude of constant joy anyone can experience simply by reminding themselves of God’s blessings:
“It is more necessary to learn to call on the name of God than it is to breathe. The Apostle Paul says that we are to pray without ceasing and by this he means that man is to remember God at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. If you are making something, you should remember the Creator of all things; if you see light, you should remember Him who gave it to you; if you see the heavens, the earth, and sea and all that is in them, you should marvel and praise God who called them all into being; if you are clothing yourself, remember the blessings of your Creator and praise Him for being concerned about your well-being. In short, every action of every day should cause you to remember and praise God, and if you do this, then you will be praying ceaselessly and your soul will always be joyful.”
In this passage, Saint Peter of Damascus seems to be saying that the things that are merely ordinary that we take for granted—our ability to make things and see light, even our existence itself—can become the occasions of intense thankfulness to our Creator.
This basic point challenges how we often think about gratitude. In each of our lives, there is a baseline for what is normal. We may have seasons of unusual suffering, and we may have times of unusual joy, but we eventually return to the baseline. The baseline itself is relative—for one person, the baseline may involve a life of hardships while another person’s baseline may involve an abundance of good things—but we all get used to our personal average. Now for most of us, when we dip below the baseline and experience out-of-the-ordinary suffering, we feel justified in grumbling. On the other hand, when most of us experience good things that rise us above the baseline, we see this as an occasion for thankfulness, and we are temporarily grateful to God. But unfortunately, this thankfulness is short-lived, because when our life returns to business-as-usual (the baseline), we cease being grateful. But what Saint Peter of Damascus seems to be saying in the above passage is that we can have supreme gratefulness for normal life itself. The things in life that we normally take for granted, the things that are merely business-as-usual for us, can become occasions of deep gratitude to God. We can offer the Lord continual thanks for the little things that feel normal—vision, clothes, life itself—but which are actually sheer gift.
When the pilgrim in the story learned to do this – to perceive all of life as a gracious gift –ordinary things began to be occasions for extraordinary delight. “Not only was I experiencing deep interior joy” he wrote, “but I sense a oneness with all of God’s creation; people, animals, trees and plants all seemed to have the name of Jesus Christ imprinted upon them.”
Elsewhere he wrote, “When I began to pray with the heart, everything around me became transformed and I saw it in a new and delightful way. The trees, the grass, the earth, the air, the light, and everything seemed to be saying to me that it exists to witness to God’s love for man and that it prays and sings of God’s glory.”
Elsewhere he wrote: “in my communion with God I felt as if I were all alone in the world: one great sinner before a merciful and loving God. In solitude I found great comfort, and the sweetness in prayer was much more intense than when I was among people.”
“Okay, I got it,” I remember thinking as I was reading The Way of a Pilgrim at the monastery. “Be grateful for the little things we take for granted, and pray a lot. Great.” But as I continued to reflect on what I was reading, I realized that this vision was much more radical (and uncomfortable) than even that. The book seemed to be also saying that we could be grateful under all circumstances even when we experience hardships that dip us below our baseline. I confess it was a struggle for me to accept that. As I went for a walk in some of the footpaths around the monastery, I remember thinking, “this is all fine and good for saints and really holy people, but how can an ordinary person like me learn to be grateful even when things are going wrong?”
The question was answered by some other experiences I had at the monastery, which enabled me to recognize just how thankful we can be both for ordinary life and for out of the ordinary hardships.
What I Learned about Gratefulness From a Romanian Butler and a Man with No Limbs
During my stay at the monastery, when I wasn’t reading The Way of a Pilgrim I would get to know some of the other pilgrims who came there for spiritual refreshment. Many of these pilgrims had been displaced by the economic crises in Eastern Europe and were facing uncertainty about their future. Many of them were also struggling to survive with little hope of being able to ever afford a family. Yet, like the pilgrim in the story, they seemed joyful and content. In comparison to these poor pilgrims at the monastery, my life was incredibly blessed, yet I was feeling depressed about numerous things that were going wrong in my life. I wanted to go up to some of the pilgrims and ask what their secret was – how can you be happy without having everything work out in your life?
After getting up early one morning to pray with the monks and nuns for a couple hours, I returned to my room for a morning nap. I was greeted by a tall gentleman I had never seen before, who was evidently making himself at home in my room.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m your new roommate,” he replied cheerfully.
This man, a Romanian that I will call Andrei, had left his home in Romania a few years ago to travel west in the hope of finding a better life. He had landed a lucrative job, offering estate management and butler services to one of the wealthiest men in all of Europe.
“That must be a great job,” I said, finding it easy to imagine Andrei as a butler. He carried himself tall, with the type of old world dignity that Americans find compelling. Moreover, Andrei was the sort of person that instinctively knew how to make the other person feel at ease. I could imagine him succeeding in life as a butler in the top echelons of British society.
“I just quit my job, actually,” Andrei replied, to my astonishment. “I’m on my way back to London to try to find new work, but I wanted to first stop off here at the monastery for some spiritual refreshment.”
“Why did you quit your job?” I said inquisitively. “After all, a job like that must be pretty hard to come by.”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “When I first left Romania and travelled west, I thought it would be fantastic to have a lot of money. I even thought that being rich could make someone happy. Since I knew I could never be rich, I figured the next best thing would be to spend time around rich people. That’s why I was so excited about this job working for the billionaire.”
“Was it everything you expected?” I asked.
“At first”, Andrei replied, pausing reflectively. “The longer I was there, however, the more I found my soul shrinking inside. You’d think that people who were billionaires would be happy, that they would be content with their lives. But it was just the other way around. I began to understand that the things that make life worth living, the things that lead to genuine contentment and well-being, are not things money can purchase at all. They’re the simple things we take for granted.”
Andrei went on to explain about the decadence and waste he witnessed at his job, and how people who can buy anything they want tend never to be satisfied. “The thing that’s ironic,” he went on explain, “is that this was my ideal job, the type of position I had always hoped to obtain. I think the Lord wanted me to do it, in order to show me that the things which matter most in life are not things money can buy.”
The next day, when we were having tea together, Andrei picked up on our previous conversation. “You know Robin, it’s not just wealthy people who suffer from chronic discontent. All of us fall into the temptation of comparing ourselves to others and then missing out on all the ways God has blessed us. For example, we go on Facebook and repeatedly see our friends posting their holiday photos, and eventually it wears us down and we begin to think ‘My life is miserable because I can’t afford a holiday like that.’ Or we see that friends of ours have a prettier or more cheerful wife, and so we think ‘I’d be happy if I were in their shoes.’ We’re always wanting more, but never slowing down to be grateful for what we actually have.”
Andrei underscored his point by referring me to some research, which I looked up after I left the monastery. One of the studies was from the ‘Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology’ which published data in October 2014 showing that the greater the amount of time someone spends on Facebook the more likely that person is to compare him or herself to others and experience depressive symptoms. This type of comparison often happens on an unconscious level so that we are not always aware of the source of our depression. Another study, published in April 2015 in the same journal, found that individuals with low self-esteem were more likely to experience envy when viewing attractive Facebook profiles.
With Andrei’s observations fresh in my mind, I walked back to the pilgrim’s quarters to read some more of The Way of a Pilgrim. On my way I reflected further on how our tendency to compare ourselves to others causes us to lose out on appreciating the blessings God has given us. Then a thought hit me: what if, instead of comparing ourselves to others around us, we started comparing ourselves to historical averages in order to emphasize just how blessed we really are. In modern western culture, the average person now lives at conditions that would have been restricted to the wealthy throughout most of human history. So why aren’t we more grateful?
Consider, in the past only kings would have been able to ride in a chariot with musicians playing in the back; now our stereo-equipped cars allow even a person of modest means to experience this luxury.
In the past it would only have been the very wealthiest who could have their own private bathing quarters where members of their household could soak in hot water at any time of the day or night; now almost anyone can experience this luxury in the average house equipped with a bathtub.
Or again, the nutrition and food variety available even to those of modest means far exceeds anything out ancestors would have been able to experience.
Many of the things our ancestors—as well as people in different parts of the world today—have to worry about, are things we never even think about, such as where to find fresh drinking water, or how to stay warm at night.
Despite this proliferation of so much wealth among ordinary people, this has not seemed to lead to more gratefulness but to less. Why is this? Could the answer have something to do with Andrei’s observations about our compulsive tendency to compare ourselves to others? We covet the things that God has blessed other people with, while taking for granted our own blessings.
This may be one of the reasons economists have found that “an individual’s attitude to consumption and saving is dictated more by his income in relation to others”, and also that “It is difficult for a family to reduce a level of consumption once attained”, leading to the peculiar fact that “The aggregate ratio of consumption to income is assumed to depend on the level of present income relative to past peak income.” All this is just a fancy way of saying that our attitude to wealth is conditioned by the possessions of those around us and what we’ve been used to having. But might it be possible to reverse engineer this, I wondered? Could we make ourselves more grateful by comparing ourselves, not to those around us, but to the historical average? Could we become more grateful by spending time reflecting on the blessings we have that most people throughout history have had to do without?
My thoughts were interrupted by my arrival at the pilgrim’s quarters. I lay down on my bed to read, but quickly drifted off to sleep. A while later I was awakened by Andrei coming into the room.
“Hey,” he said, “I want to show you something.” He took me over to the corner of the room, where he sometimes managed to receive a slight signal for his smartphone. He proceeded to share with me some videos of the evangelist Nick Vujicic, a man born without any arms and legs.
If anyone had a reason to grumble and complain, Nick Vujicic did. At age 8 Nick thought about committing suicide, while at age 10 he tried to drown himself. He was subject to constant bullying and had nothing to look forward to except a life of hopelessness. Yet Nick’s parents kept teaching him the value of thankfulness. In one of his videos, Nick shares “My parents always taught me that even though we don’t know why I was born this way, that we have a choice: either to be angry for what we don’t have, or to be thankful for what we do have. The power of that choice was the first thing that I had to overcome, and decide for myself…” Gradually Nick learned to reframe his life in positive terms. He learned to begin focusing on the blessings he did have rather than focusing on what he had to do without. Now Nick has a ministry speaking to audiences and reminding people to be thankful for the ordinary things we normally take for granted.
Commenting on these videos, Andrei explained how the presence of people like Nick Vujicic challenges how we normally think about happiness. We think that happiness results from having lots of stuff and getting what we want (health, friendship, money, stability, etc.). But here was someone who is utterly happy without even having the most basic possession (arms and legs).
How can this be, I thought? How could someone be happy without any limbs? According to Nick Vujicic, his happiness comes down to one thing: gratefulness.
At this point during my stay at the monastery, I began to think that maybe the Lord was trying to tell me something. Maybe He was trying to show me that I also needed to begin living in a spirit of gratitude.
What an Italian Receptionist taught me About Reframing
A few weeks before my arrival at the monastery, I stayed at a hotel in London while taking care of business in the city. One of the receptionists, an Italian lady whom I will call Nicole, had just immigrated to the UK a month before. The severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
In answering my questions about her homeland, Nicole’s eyes lit up as she described the gentle greenery and pastureland near Venice that she had called home until recently. She obviously missed her home and family.
“I’m sorry,” I said sympathetically, “that must be tough having to leave your home and come to the city.” Nicole hadn’t actually said that things were difficult, but I could tell that life hadn’t been easy of late. I expected her to reply with a comment about her recent struggles, but instead she reframed her challenges in positive terms.
“I’m just thankful to have a job” she replied in broken English. “Also, I live in Wimbledon where there are some fields and trees, and on my way to work I can look at them to be reminded of my homeland.”
I stood silent, somewhat astonished at what I had just heard. Here was somebody who had been uprooted from everything she held dear, and who was facing uncertainty about her future, and yet she managed to cheer herself up by looking at fields during her commute to work. She could have interpreted her life in terms that emphasized everything that had gone wrong for her (the collapse of the Italian economy, leaving her family and friends for an unfamiliar country, moving from the green countryside to the crowded city, etc.) and yet she made a choice to put a positive frame around these events. But how does a person do that? Surely cheerfulness isn’t something a person can cultivate simply by an act of will.
As if sensing my thoughts, Nicole added, “I decided a while ago, that whatever happens to me, I will keep a positive outlook. You see,” she said, pausing to find the right English words, “when you have new experiences, you never know what good will come out of them. You never know what you might be able to learn, how you might be able to grow. And, most importantly, you never know how your experiences will enable you to help others later on.”
I almost forgot about my conversation with Nicole until I came to the monastery and was reminded how we can turn negatives into positives through cognitive reframing. What Nicole described was similar to what I was reading about in The Way of a Pilgrim, and similar again to the insights I had gleaned from talking to Andrei, and similar to what Nick Vujicic shared in his inspiring videos. It all seemed to be pointing towards the fact that each of us has the power to bring meaning and purpose to our life by how we interpret the circumstances that confront us. The same set of circumstances that might be perceived by one person as depressing and discouraging set-backs (the-glass-is-half-empty-mindset), might be perceived by another person as being challenging opportunities to grow through and overcome (the-glass-is-half-full- mindset). The difference between these two perspectives is not in the experiences themselves, but the narratives we tell ourselves about our experiences.
When I left the monastery and returned to the United States, these conversations continued to haunt me. Still, I was skeptical. You see, I’m the sort of person that always tries to explain things away. If the Lord answers a prayer, or if He sends someone to meet my need in a powerful way, I analyze it until I can explain it naturalistically. So I began thinking about these experiences from the standpoint of “devil’s advocate.” Maybe the only reason people like Nicole, or the pilgrim in the story, are able to remain cheerful in the midst of difficulties is because they have a naturally optimistic personality. Or maybe they’ve simply learned to trick their brains into the kind of sentimentality that we find on annoying Hallmark cards. Or maybe having a positive outlook on life is no more than an escape mechanism whereby we learn to deny the reality of pain in our lives. The worst thought I had, which I’m ashamed to say kept coming back to me over and over again, was that none of these experiences had actually happened at all but that I had merely imagined them to try to cheer myself up.
Armed with these objections, I decided to look at the question from the standpoint of science and some of the latest discoveries in cognitive psychology. I wanted to know if there was any hard experimental data to support what scripture and Christian tradition teach about reframing. I discovered that there is. Space prohibits me from sharing everything I learned, so I will limit my observations to a few high points from my research.
As I delved into the literature about reframing, I discovered that the human brain naturally defaults to narratives that frame our experiences in negative rather than positive terms. Research on negativity bias conducted by Alison Ledgerwood, a social psychologist at UC Davis, confirmed earlier insights that the human brain can convert positives into negatives almost half as easily as our brains can convert negatives into positives.
When Ledgerwood presented volunteers with scenarios where data was placed in a “gain frames” (i.e, “jobs saved”) and then presented other volunteers with the exact same data in a “loss frame” (i.e. “jobs lost”), she found that it significantly affected people’s judgment of the scenario, even though both groups were presented with the same data.
Similarly, when participants were asked to perform a simple math problem converting from gains to losses (when 600 lives are at stake, if 100 lives are saved, how many will be lost?), they could solve it in 7 seconds. By contrast, if the same problem was presented in a way that required participants to convert from losses to gains (when 600 lives are at stake, if 100 lives are lost, how many will be saved?), it took them eleven seconds. This confirmed that it is much easier for humans to frame experiences in terms that move from gains to losses than it is to frame the same experience in a way that moves from losses to gains.
But the really fascinating part of Ledgerwood’s research was when she decided to ask how easily people can switch back and forth from one conceptualization to another, or whether we get stuck in one way of thinking about something. She found that loss frames are cognitively “stickier” than gain frames, that “it is more difficult for people to shift from conceptualizing an issue in terms of losses to reconceptualizing it in terms of gains (compared to shifting from gains to losses).” Once something had been put in a loss frame, the stickiness of that frame persists in the mind even after the information is switched to a gain frame.
This suggests that human beings are quite adept at reframing but only when the reframing is negative. By contrast, positive reframing is not natural to our minds, but takes hard work and deliberate choice. Positive reframing is like struggling to ride a bicycle up a steep hill, whereas negative reframing is like riding the bike downhill. And it is even harder to frame experiences positively once we have allowed the negative frame to get stuck in our minds. As Ledgerwood put it when discussing her findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology,
“once an issue is framed in terms of losses, this can have a lasting impact on judgment, even in the face of a current gain frame. ….the results suggest that it is cognitively easier for people to shift from conceptualizing information in terms of gains to reconceptualizing it in terms of losses than it is for them to reconstrue losses as gains. …whereas gain frames lead people to adopt gain-based conceptualizations that shift readily in response to reframing, loss frames lead to loss-based conceptualizations that stick in the face of reframing. The general picture emerging from these studies, then, is that loss frames tend to stick in the mind: Once applied, they may be difficult to change.”
Let’s make this practical for the life of the Christian. In every life-situation that confronts us, we can choose to frame it in terms that emphasize what we’ve lost or what we’ve gained. Since the cross gives believers the spiritual resources for framing even the most difficult experiences in terms of spiritual gains (see my article about that here), the gain-frame should become second nature to us. However, once we succumb to a loss frame, our brains are wired to find this frame “sticky”, so that it becomes very difficult to switch to a positive way of perceiving the same data.
When I first discovered this research on the cognitive stickiness of negative fames, I confess I found it discouraging. “That’s just great,” I remember thinking. “So I’ve spent most of my life with a negative half-empty mentality rather than a positive half-full mentality, and just when I’m starting to realize that maybe I should change my perspective, I’m being told that switching from negative loss-frames to positive gain-frame is difficult and goes against the natural wiring of the brain. I knew there was no hope for me!”
I was helped to get out of this rut by another crucial piece of data. Research on neuroplasticity reveals that we can change the wiring of our brain through deliberate effort. In fact, it gets even better than that: the harder this effort is, the more lasting the changes are to the brain!
If this were in a book, then this is where I would go on a long detour about the science of brain plasticity, and I would share how the brains of London taxi drivers shows an enlargement in the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with navigation) and other fascinating discoveries about how the brain changes itself. But for the moment, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the wiring of our brain, even among the middle-aged and elderly, is not fixed, but is malleable, flexible, and constantly adapting to the choices we make about how to use our brain. (For further resources and a cool video about neuroplasticity, click here).
Neuroplasticity means that throughout all of life, in every decision we make and every experience we confront, we are either strengthening or weakening different parts of the brain. But brain scientists have found that the most noticeable effects of neuroplasticity occur when a person engages in activities that take continual effort over long periods of time. Examples would be learning a foreign language, taking up a new musical instrument, memorizing scripture or Shakespeare, acquiring a new skill, and the list could go on. The harder the effort is over the long haul, the more lasting changes occur to the brain. For example, if I decide to teach myself to play the piano but I only practice once in a while and I never move beyond simple nursery rhymes, then although this will create new neuropathways in my brain, I won’t experience the massive rewiring of grey matter that occurs in someone who practices every day and whose practice routine involves deliberately putting herself in situations where she will be stretched and challenged. (Again, you’ll have to trust me when I say that the scientific support for what I’m saying is overwhelming.)
The same principle applies when it comes to something like cognitive reframing. We know that cognitive reframing changes the brain in general and that practicing deliberate gratefulness changes the brain in particular. But the really cool thing is that, as with learning the piano, the harder and more sustained this effort, the more potential there is for the changes in the brain to be greater. Just as the way to become a piano expert is to throw oneself into difficult musical situations (i.e., Beethoven Sonatas and Rachmaninoff concertos) over and over again, so the way to become a gratitude expert is to practice cognitive reframing in lots of difficult situations over many years, including situations that stretch the current level of your gratitude-ability. As you do this, it may not feel as if anything is happening in your brain, and you may even feel like you are regressing, just as a piano player feels he is regressing every time he stumbles over the notes of a new piece. But as you practice gratefulness over and over again in challenging life-situations, your gratitude will be causing the growth of new synapses between neurons until eventually (if you stick at it long enough) new neuropathways in the brain will become myelinated. (For more about this, watch the short video on How Gratitude Changes the Brain.)
Perhaps you’re thinking “This gratefulness stuff is well and good, but Robin doesn’t know how difficult my life is. My life is filled with so much hardship that I could never learn to practice this type of constant gratefulness. It’s not that I have a glass-is-half-empty mentality, or that I naturally gravitate from gain-frames to loss-frames. In fact, I consider myself quite a positive person. It’s just that my life really is filled with significant suffering.” If you find yourself in that type of situation, then learning to be grateful in daily life will be significantly harder than most people. But precisely because of this difficulty, you will have more practice opportunities than most people ever have. To illustrate how this works, spend a moment thinking about the brain like a muscle (an analogy that is becoming increasingly popular in the scientific literature about neuroplasticity). We all know that going to the gym and regularly lifting 100 lb. will enlarge your muscles more than lifting only 50 lbs. The harder the challenge, the more it changes your muscles. The same is true of the brain. If you are working to develop a mentality of gratitude in the midst of severe hardships, the sheer difficulty of the task before you means that when you eventually succeed, your brain will be much stronger at positive reframing than a person who practiced against merely normal life challenges. Again, it’s like strengthening your pectoralis major by bench-pressing 100 lbs. rather than 50.
One character from literature who embodies this principle is the character of Dr. Alexandre Manette, from Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. Dr. Manette had been imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years, where he progressively descended into a state of chronic depression until he finally lost his mind. Upon his release, Dr. Manette’s senses gradually returned to him under the gentle care of his daughter, Miss Lucie Manette. Yet even after being restored to health, he always continued to struggle with melancholy given the suffering he had endured during almost two decades of solitary confinement. For Dr. Manette to come to frame his experiences in positive terms would be like asking someone to train themselves to bench-press 500 pounds – almost impossible. But he did it. Over a long period of time, during which he experienced occasional relapses, the doctor gradually rewired his brain. His quiet, resolute and guarded struggle against negativity was so strong and constant that it was visible even on his sleeping face.
One evening, Dr. Manette’s elderly friend, Jarvis Lorry, comes upon the doctor sleeping. Even in sleep Mr. Lorry could see the effects of the doctor’s long struggle not to descend back into the negativity that had once consumed him:
“Into his handsome face, the bitter waters of captivity had worn; but, he covered up their tracks with a determination so strong, that he held the mastery of them even in his sleep. A more remarkable face in its quiet, resolute, and guarded struggle with an unseen assailant, was not to be beheld in all the wide dominions of sleep, that night.”
In Dr. Manette, the battle to remain positive was a colossal struggle. But all of us, in our own ways, face the same choice that he did: the choice of what will dominate the internal landscape of our lives. Will we be defined by darkness or light, by negativity or positivity, by grumbling or gratefulness? It is in these choices that we define the people we become.
How a Bulgarian Widow Showed Me the Meaning of Happiness
After my time at the monastery drew to a close, I travelled up to Lincolnshire where I stayed with various friends. One of the friends I stayed with, the artist Andrew White, had recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria where he had been doing some charity work.
Andrew enthusiastically shared with me about his stay at an Eastern Orthodox monastery and of the impact his trip had made on him.
“On one particular evening,” Andrew said, “we were hosted by a Christian businessman in a luxury home, nestled at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. Food and drinks were plentiful, and we had an evening of singing, prayer and testimonies. The temperature outside began to drop, and outside the windows we could see snow falling. But inside we were warm and comfortable.”
“As our meeting drew to a close,” Andrew went on, “our interpreter told us that we had one more appointment with a widow he knows. By this time it was approaching midnight, and I was concerned about keeping an elderly lady up so late, but our interpreter assured us that she was expecting our arrival.”
Andrew explained how his interpreter took him and his friend through refuse fields into a part of town where the poverty stood in marked contrast to the wealthy environment they had just left. Finally they arrived at a little shack, where an elderly widow named Lily greeted them. “Our visit was obviously a great honor to her”, Andrew related.
“Lily took us into a tiny room, where my senses were suddenly assailed. I instinctively recoiled at the environment, which revealed greater poverty than I had ever seen. I retreated inwardly, trying to understand how and why the conditions of poverty which surrounded me could be home to a fellow human being. I looked at my friend; no words passed, but we were both shaken.”
Andrew shared how they were met by a diminutive lady who had been widowed for more than 40 years. Sometimes she had no wood for fuel in the cold winters, and she often had to go hungry. To make ends meet she sold trinket on the street, yet she refused payment for cleaning her local church each week.
“Lily turned and said something to us in Bulgarian while raising her arms in a gesture of radiant happiness. Our interpreter conveyed her words: ‘When I woke up this morning, the first thing I did was praise God and I said to him, ‘I am the richest woman in the world!’”
At this point in his story I asked Andrew how a woman living in so much poverty could consider herself the richest person in the world. Andrew paused, remembering the occasion as if it had just been yesterday. Then he said, “Lily may have been poor materially, but she focused on how she was rich spiritually, and this created in her a profound sense of gratitude.”
Andrew continued: “I found it hard to hold back the emotion I felt, beholding the strange contradiction before my eyes. An elderly widow had discovered a secret that we in the West continue striving for with increased desperation. We think ‘perhaps if we could only make more money, our worries might be eased and we would find peace.’ But this woman had discovered more than peace. Somehow, despite material want, she had found genuine happiness through spiritual devotion.”
“Blinking back tears I reached for whatever cash I had in my pocket and I threw it onto the small table in front of me. Lily had never seen so much money before. I ask the interpreter to say that Jesus wants to bless her. But I realized on reflection that Jesus already has. The blessing was her to give me. This was my opportunity, my lesson for recognizing the true meaning of prosperity.”
Months after my stay with Andrew and his family, I continued to be haunted by the story of Lily. How could someone who needed so much, and who suffered from cold, hunger and lack of basic sanitation, radiate such gratefulness and joy?
If all of us can achieve the type of joy Lily had, simply by developing an attitude of gratitude, then why don’t we all do it? After all, everyone wants to have joy in their life, and if the key is as simple as learning to find joy in the Lord for everything He has blessed us with, then why don’t we all do it?
I still don’t know the answer to this last question, but part of the answer may be that while gratitude leads to deep happiness and joy, it only does so when we cease making happiness our goal. To be grateful is to think less and less about ourselves and what we want, or even what we need. To be grateful is to develop a constant sense of our deep dependence on others and ultimately our dependence on the Lord. It is to realize how small and insignificant we actually are, and thus begin to be released from the prison of an ego-centered life. A disposition of gratitude is thus incompatible with the focus on self, including our selfish quest to achieve personal happiness. Paradoxically, however, this type of selfless gratitude does lead to more happiness than one could ever imagine, as the story of Lily illustrates.
Saint Silouan, whose spiritual teaching created the template for the Monastery of St John the Baptist where I stayed, embodied this same life of peaceful contentment. Listen to this beautiful quotation where Saint Silouan reflected on the peace that comes through contentedly accepting whatever God brings to our lives:
“We must always pray the Lord for peace of soul that we may the more easily fulfil the Lord’s commandments; for the Lord loves those who strive to do His will, and thus they attain profound peace in God. He who does the Lord’s will is content with all things, though he be poor or sick and suffering, because the grace of God gladdens his heart. But the man who is discontented with his lot and murmurs against his fate, or against those who cause him offense, should realize that his spirit is in a state of pride, which has taken from him his sense of gratitude towards God.” [From Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938]
Why aren’t we all like Saint Silouan and Lily? What are the forces that work to inhibit us from achieving this type of peace, joy and gratefulness? No doubt there are a multitude of answers to a question like this, but as I researched the matter, I was particularly intrigued to come across four specific barriers to gratefulness that plague many of us living in the modern west. In the next four sections I will explore each of these barriers.
Barrier #1: Never Enough
Why aren’t we all like the widow Lily, who discovered the key to happiness in the midst of extreme poverty? That was a question I found myself asking after I returned to the United States in summer 2015, following my time in the UK.
Not long after returning to America I got sick and went to stay with some friends in Moscow Idaho to recover. While living in Moscow, I spent some time in the University of Idaho library, where I researched the social impact of electrical appliances in the early twentieth-century home. At first glance, the social impact of electrical appliances might not seem related to the question of gratefulness. However, what I learned did underscore the fact that cultural conditions play an important role in determining a person’s level of satisfaction and regulating their level of wants. But I’m getting ahead of myself: back to electrical appliances.
When electricity became a utility accessible to homes in the early twentieth-century, people began to have access to appliances we now take for granted, such as the vacuum cleaner, the electric iron, the laundry machine, the electric oven, and so forth. These electric appliances replaced processes that previously required time-intensive human labor. Yet, ironically, these inventions did not result in there being less domestic work.
Between 1912 and 1914 (just prior to the widespread adoption of electric appliances), research was done to find out how many hours a week women spent on domestic chores. It was found that the average woman spent 56 hours on housework. Between 1925 and 1931, electric appliances had become standard, thanks to cheap portable electricity. Yet the really amazing thing is that researchers still found that women were spending between 50 and 60 hours a week on household chores. Even as late as 1965 the average was still 54 hours.
Now fast-forward to modern times. In 2006, similar research was once again undertaken, focusing on women who chose to devote themselves to domestic work. Again, the research showed that housewives were still spending between 51 and 56 hours a week. While the work a contemporary housewife performs is qualitatively easier than before (it involves less drudgery), it is not quantitatively easier (that is, it still takes just as much time). Indeed, women who choose the vocation of housewife are still working roughly the same amount of hours as the pre-industrial housewife. (Details of these studies can be found in Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google and in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s book More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave.)
On the surface this seems really strange. Why would women in the early twenty-first century who choose the vocation of housewife spend roughly the same amount of time on household chores as women in the 1910s before the advent of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, the dish-washer, and so forth?
The answer seems to come down to the fact that labor-saving devices caused our expectations to change. With the electric iron, the standards for the amount of socially-acceptable wrinkles in your blouse or dress suddenly shot up. It even began to be expected that children’s school clothes would be neatly ironed. Previous to this time, the idea of children needing to appear in ironed clothes would have seemed ludicrous.
Similarly, the standards for how clean your house ought to be also shot up. Instead of cleaning your rugs once or twice a year (by taking them outside and beating them), you were expected to vacuum every day.
The standards for how clean you needed to be also shot up. Our idea of needing to take a shower every day, or never wear the same underwear two days in a row, or never let people smell your natural odor (an idea that still seems strange to many Europeans today), are all anomalies from the perspective of history. (For more about this, see Katherine Ashenburg’s fascinating work The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.)
The perspective people began to have about their clothes also changed. After the washing machine people began to significantly increase the size of their wardrobes, and to feel it was not acceptable to wear clothes that were dirty.
These changing cultural shifts meant that women remained just as busy after the invention of household appliances as before. The tasks that women would previously have performed infrequently—in some cases, only few months—began to be daily occurrences.
Equally important, the standards for what you could be expected to accomplish on your own shot up, with the result that domestic help (previously available to even middle-class women) ceased being available, or became prohibitively expensive. Why should you need to ask for help with so many machines around? The same dilemma still plagues home-makers today, especially those who also homeschool—many of these women feel they must have something wrong with them if they ask for help on routine domestic duties.
Put all of this together and a startling conclusion begins to emerge: what is now considered “normal” is the diet, cleanliness, clothing variety and house-size that was once normal only for members of the upper middle class who had servants.
This relates to the question of gratefulness by highlighting two important principles:
- the more we have the more we want;
- our baseline for determining what is “normal” (which then influences the standards we think we have a right to before we can be grateful) is culturally conditioned.
A good example to illustrate these two points is what happened following the increased availability of pre-ground flour in the nineteenth-century. The labor that was saved by flour’s increased accessibility was neutralized by the fact that white bread that was light, sweet and tender became a status symbol, with the result that the types of foods women were expected to cook changed. Again, the more we have the more we want.
Or again, the labor that was saved by the invention of the eggbeater during the middle decades of the nineteenth-century was neutralized by the fact that women started to be expected to serve angel food cakes, in which eggs are the only leavening, and yolks and whites are beaten separately—thus doubling the work.
The labor that was saved by cotton replacing linen and wool as the most frequently used fabric increased the amount of laundering that was expected, since one of cotton’s attractions as a fabric was that it could be washed fairly easily.
The time that was saved by the invention of the automobile was neutralized by the fact that merchants ceased coming to the door and instead expected women to drive to them.
Through these and other examples (some of which I have blogged about here and here and here) we see that household technologies have created the terrible burden of making everyone feel that the baseline for normality is a lifestyle once appropriate only to the rich. At the same time, household technologies have not been accompanied by an increase in the net gratefulness among those who reach that baseline.
Researchers have found that a little money can buy a lot of happiness for a poor person while a lot of money can only buy a little happiness for a rich person; in a similar way, it seems that small blessings lead to a lot of gratefulness for poor people sooner than a lot of blessings lead to more than merely a little gratefulness for wealthy people. Ergo, as a culture we are very wealthy (when wealth is calculated in absolute rather than relative terms), and consequently it takes a lot to make us grateful, but then as soon as we have everything we want the baseline of our expectations shift, thus neutralizing our consciousness of blessing.
Given that most of us enjoy a standard of living that was once accessible only to the very wealthiest in society, it remains to be asked why we are not more grateful. One of the answers is surely that we become acclimatized to our blessings, leading to the sad fact that we always want more and are never satisfied. In the end we find that no matter how we fare in terms of our absolute standard of living, we let ourselves be plagued with the illusory sense of scarcity through the consciousness that what we have is never enough.
Barrier #2: Comparing Ourselves to Others
Another barrier to gratefulness, which is closely related to the one just mentioned, is our compulsive tendency to compare ourselves to others. All too often, the possessions, lifestyle, wealth and opportunities of those around us create the baseline for what we expect to be normal, with the tragic result that we often only feel grateful for blessings that raise us above that baseline. If we compared ourselves to those throughout history, we would see that we have enormous grounds for gratitude, but instead we tend to compare ourselves to those around us.
The research on this is overwhelming, so I will limit myself to just a few of the many studies that have been conducted.
Data published in 2010 from a Europe-wide survey found that people who compared their incomes to others were less happy with what they had. The comparisons that were most damaging to happiness were when people compared their incomes to friends from school and university.
Other research conducted in numerous different contexts has found that social comparisons in an “upward” directions (that is, when we compare ourselves to people we deem superior to us) are associated with depression, negative health outcomes and decreased self-esteem.
That is probably unsurprising and is something we might have guessed without reference to extensive research. But what is really interesting is what Sonja Lyubomirsky, from the University of California Riverside, discovered when she decided to look at the different ways happy and unhappy people respond to social comparisons. In 1997, Lyubomirsky teamed up with Lee Ross from Stanford, to explore the different ways happy vs. unhappy people responded to positive and negative feedback following a teaching exercise. They found that positive feedback enhanced the self-confidence of happy participants even if the happy person learned that their peers got a better result. On the other hand, unhappy people increased in self-confidence when they received positive feedback alone, but increased only minimally when they learned their peers did better. However, the really interesting part of the study was when participants were given negative feedback and told that their peers did even worse. During this part of the study unhappy participants showed greater increases in self-confidence after learning that they did poorly than after learning that they did well, because in the former case they were told that their peer did even worse and in the latter case they were told that their peer did better. By contrast, for the happy participants, the condition of doing well while their peer did better led to more self-confidence than learning they did poorly that their peer did worse.
The conclusion is not simply that those who are consumed by peer comparison are doomed to live an unhappier life, but that unhappy people actually enjoy seeing other people do worse!
In a different experiment involving desserts, Lyubomirsky confirmed that unhappy people tended to denigrate the fortunes of others, whereas happy people simply enjoyed what they were given. The New York Times described the experiment:
Dr. Lyubomirsky designed an experiment in which people ranked 10 desserts, knowing they’d get one. Each participant was then given his second or third choice and told to rank all 10 desserts again. …Dr. Ward remembered, “The happy people said, ‘Well, this dessert is good, and I’m sure the others are good, too!’ The unhappy people liked their desserts just fine but indicated they were extremely relieved not to have received the ‘awful’ nonchosen dessert. In other words, unhappy people derogated the dessert they did not receive, whereas happy people felt no need to do so.”
In another context Dr. Lyubomirsky did work with children and found that unhappy children had unconsciously imbibed the notion that the only way to achieve true happiness is at another person’s expense. Quoting again from The New York Times:
“Dr. Lyubomirsky asked two volunteers at a time to use hand puppets to teach a lesson about friendship to an imaginary audience of children. Afterward the puppeteers were evaluated against each other: you did great but your partner did better, or you did badly but your partner was even worse.
The volunteers who were happy before the puppeteering review cared a bit about hearing that they had performed worse than their colleagues but largely shrugged it off. The unhappy volunteers were devastated. Dr. Lyubomirsky writes: “It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself. … One’s friends must fail.’ ” This, she says, is probably why a great number of people know the German word schadenfreude (describing happiness at another’s misfortune) and almost nobody knows the Yiddish shep naches (happiness at another’s success).”
This seemed to suggest that a truly happy person is someone who can enjoy his or her blessings, but also take delight in the way God has blessed others. By contrast, for unhappy people, happiness tends to be a zero-sum game, whereby we are endlessly competing with those around us. This social comparison model of happiness (happiness equals what I get minus what others get) leads people to irrational states of mind whereby they end up preferring less optimal outcomes in order to be above other people. This emerged quite clearly in a study conducted at Harvard and related in Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin’s book Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life:
“…students at the Harvard School of Public Health were asked to choose in which of two worlds they would prefer to live. In World A, your current yearly income is $50,000 and others earn $25,000. In World B, your current yearly income is $100,000 and others earn $200,000.
“Which one would you choose?
“A majority of the students preferred World A in spite of it providing half the income available in World B, presumably because their relative income position was higher. This same answer pattern was given for several other domains of life, such as intelligence and attractiveness. Again, people prefer lower absolute levels as long as they have an advantageous relative standing. [To read the full study, click here]
This study gets at the root of how irrational it is to compare ourselves to others. When we begin mental comparisons with those around us we find that the exact same situation that would make us happy in one part of the world, or in one time of history, leads to misery in another context. The difference between happiness and misery is not to be found in the circumstances themselves, but in our larger social context which invites either upward or downward social comparisons. This means that the exact same situation that could make someone happy in one geographical or historical or social context, can lead to misery in another context. (For examples of this, see my article ‘Gratefulness and the Rising Baseline.’) Our perception of our blessings, our achievements, our intelligence, our attractiveness and even our value as a person, is imperceptibly affected by these subtle comparisons in which we are constantly engaged.
Thomas J. DeLong commented on the comparison trap for the Harvard Business Review, observing that
“Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we’re high-need-for-achievement professionals. No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success. What we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter; real success or achievement requires something more — a title we’ve never held, a task we’ve never done, a company we’ve never worked for. The process of comparing requires us to keep making our target more difficult to hit. And if we manage to hit this difficult target, we simply create an even more difficult one at which we can aim. No matter how much we achieve, we are never satisfied with our achievements when we’re caught in the comparing trap.”
If instead of thinking of happiness as a zero-sum game, or as a competition between us and our peers, we could instead develop the mentality of shep naches (happiness at another’s success), just imagine how much grateful (and therefore happy) we would be. A person who can train himself or herself to be grateful for other people’s fortune and well-being, has continual grounds for happiness even when everything is going wrong in his or her life.
Barrier #3: The Myth that Gratitude and Suffering Cannot Co-Exist
Another barrier that often stands in the way of gratitude is the myth that gratitude and suffering cannot co-exist. When I decided to play devil’s advocate and critically investigate the question of gratefulness, one of the options I considered was whether gratefulness and suffering exist in a type of zero-sum relationship, so that once our sufferings reach a certain level of intensity it squeezes out any possibility of genuine gratitude.
“After all,” I reasoned to myself, “it’s all very well talking about the psychology and neuroscience of gratefulness from the comfort of our warm suburban houses, but how does this apply to someone facing severe conditions, or to people who have to endure deprivation and torture?”
With these questions fresh in my mind, I decided to look at records from people who were forced to endure extreme conditions under the Nazis during the Second World War. I was particularly intrigued to see what light Viktor Frankl memoirs about his time in Auschwitz might shed on this question.
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944 because of his Jewish pedigree. After being released, Frankl described his three years in the concentration camps in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. The book does not make for comfortable reading since Frankl chronicles the torments of mind, body and spirit that he and the other prisoners had to endure. But what intrigued me was when Frankl eloquently described how suffering enabled him and the other prisoners to understand what was truly important in life, and thus to be grateful for things that the rest of us take for granted.
Frankl described how conditions of extreme deprivation and cruelty enabled the prisoners to attain incredibly high levels of gratitude for tiny things, such as a colorful sunset or memories of family and loved ones. “We were grateful for the smallest of mercies”, he recalled.
Despite the unimaginably difficult circumstances he had to endure, Frankl found that it was possible to reframe his suffering in positive terms even at the time. Not everyone could do this, for many prisoners lost hope and gave up on life; however for those who clung to their spiritual integrity, it was possible to realize high levels of spiritual freedom and purpose even in the midst of so much deprivation, darkness and death. “[O]ften it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself”, he wrote in his memoirs.
In one moving passage Frankl told of those who, though starving to death, chose to give their last bits of precious bread to help others, and thus to realize the ultimate sacrifice of choosing to take up one’s cross for the sake of another. Such prisoners were able to add a deeper meaning to what would otherwise be a hopeless and purposeless situation.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. …in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. …the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment afford him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by eternal forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.
During his time in the death camps, Frankl saw that the ability to accept suffering with dignity and spiritual integrity, and the ability to find a higher meaning in and through the confusion and agony, could make the difference to whether a prisoner literally shriveled up and died, or whether he continued to live. For some, finding a higher meaning came in the choice to accept one’s suffering instead of escaping into a condition of numbness and passivity. For others, spiritual freedom came in their refusal to give up hope, even when the likelihood of ever surviving the war was very slim.
Frankl was able to later use these insights in his work as a psychotherapist. He taught his patients that each of us have the power to bring meaning and purpose to our lives by how we interpret the circumstances that confront us. The quality of our life depends, not on everything working out for us, but on our “will to meaning”—the determination to find meaning, purpose and significance in and through situations that might otherwise lead to hopelessness and depression.
In the end, how we respond to suffering determines the sort of people we become. Ultimately, it determines whether we will become more fully human or less. Each of us faces the choice whether we will revolt against our circumstances, or whether to accept them and find ways to grow in and through our hardships. Revolting against our hardships can take the form of bitterness, or it can take the form of passivity and hopelessness. In both cases, it is a missed opportunity. The opportunity we miss is the chance to accept our suffering as opportunities for spiritual growth, and thus not to suffer in vain (Galatians 3:4).
The psychologist M. Scott Peck (1936-2005) was right when he pointed out that sometimes this very act of accepting our sufferings has the potential to ease our burden, for it enables us to rise above the circumstances that might otherwise overwhelm us. In his book The Road Less Travelled, Peck pointed out that because life is basically difficult, the sooner we come to terms with this truth, the happier we will be.
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them…”
Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy or prosperous, can we truly be grateful. For once we have accepted that life is difficult and suffering is normal, we can begin to perceive any small amount of joy or comfort as pure gift, like the prisoners in the concentration camp were able to do when they saw a sunset. This suggests not merely that gratitude and suffering can co-exist, but that without suffering it is hard to ever develop a disposition of true gratitude. When life is too easy, we take our blessings for granted; we cease to view the basic necessities of life—warmth, food, shelter and friends—as pure gift.
We see how different this is to the type of escapism that permeates so much self-help literature of the last thirty years (although to be fair, the self-help literature has recently started to become more substantive). In both The Way of a Pilgrim and Man’s Search For Meaning, we find that truly grateful people are able to put an accurate valuation on life’s evils as well as life’s blessings, and to move forward in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances through a moment-by-moment awareness of life’s higher purpose. How different this is from the type of escapism that tries to white-wash over life’s pain by saying “Everything is good, really.” When the pilgrim chronicled the wicked deeds of his older brother, he was able to correctly identify them as being evil, just as when Viktor Frankl told about the inhuman conditions of Auschwitz, he accurately identified the depths of evil to which man had stooped. Yet both authors were able to also put an accurate valuation on what is good in life, and in so doing they came to understand that what is good is larger and more lasting than what is evil.
The escapist denies the reality of evil, while the grateful man acknowledges evil but rises above it. Thus, true gratefulness is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult, while framing that difficulty within an overall positive context.
Acknowledging that life is difficult shouldn’t be too hard to do, given the type of world we live in and the types of people we have to deal with every day. Yet this basic fact is often denied in the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel that has become so pervasive in Western culture (and Africa). At its worst, this false teaching asserts that Christians should never experience emotional pain or acknowledge suffering. Although this teaching may seem to have some overlap with what I have written earlier about positive reframing, it is completely incompatible with a true spirit of gratefulness. To prove this we just need to look at the Psalms. Consider how many of the Psalms show that when we experience injustice, or when somebody hurts us, it is appropriate to feel upset and acknowledge our hurt even while framing these experiences in positive terms. Throughout so many of the Psalms we see appropriate expressions of loneliness and misery while these very emotions are situated within a context of total gratefulness to God. If you don’t believe me, try this little test: open up the Psalms in the first quarter of the book and start reading at random. Very quickly you’ll begin coming across chapters in which the first part of the Psalm is taken up with expressing pain, loneliness, hurt or confusion, while the second half of the same Psalm is concerned with positive re-framing through meditation on God’s love, promises and past mercies. If this teaches us anything, it is that someone who has learned to be grateful in all circumstances is able to experience the spiritual paradox of feeling pain and being grateful at the same time.
If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to find our Lord telling his listeners not to mourn. Instead He declared “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to read Christ telling us to expect all men to bless us, yet instead He declared “Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) Notice how Christ’s acknowledgement of evil deeds (reviling, persecution, saying all manner of evil) is compatible with His positive reframing (“Blessed are you”).
In the end, the prosperity gospel, like the Hallmark-feel-good-escapist-positive-thinking-self-helpism, tries to take a short-cut to true gratefulness. Anyone can adopt the type of pseudo-gratefulness that comes from denying the reality of our pain, suffering and vulnerability. When we adopt this standpoint of denial, no reframing is necessary because there is nothing wrong to begin with. The true test is whether we can remain grateful to God in the midst of acknowledging real pain.
Biblical writers like Saint Paul and Saint James told their readers to joy in their tribulations, not to deny that their tribulations are taking place. But neither are we to resign ourselves to suffering through passive resignation. As Alfred Plummer pointed out in his Commentary on James 1,
“This doctrine of joy in suffering, which at first sight seems to be almost superhuman, is shown by experience to be less hard than the apparently more human doctrine of resignation and fortitude. The effort to be resigned, and to suffer without complaining, is not a very inspiring effort. Its tendency is towards depression. It does not lift us out of ourselves or above our tribulations. On the contrary, it leads rather to self-contemplation and a brooding over miseries…. It is in the long run easier to rejoice in tribulation, and be thankful for it, than to be merely resigned and submit patiently. And therefore this ‘hard saying’ is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in the spirit that will make us feel them least.”
Barrier #4: The Myth of Doing What Comes Naturally (without any work)
One of the myths that is deeply ingrained in our culture is that the more effort something requires, the less genuine or authentic is the result.
In talking about the role struggle can play in developing gratitude, I feel I’m going against the grain of so much popular thinking. In my experience at least, one of the myths that is deeply ingrained in our culture is that the more effort something requires, the less genuine or authentic is the result.
One of the areas we see this manifested is in the arts. Much of the contemporary painting I’ve seen strives to convey a sense of raw immediacy over and against art that includes tokens of refined skill that takes years of difficult effort to develop (although in reality, much effort does go into the former). Or, in much of our culture’s popular music, vocalists are rarely required to sing intervals that stretch more than a major fifth, and many performers strive to make their singing sound effortless. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this, but in general the fine voice training required to execute the difficult intervals in Schubert’s lieder or Verdi’s arias feels less authentic and personal to many young people today. Similarly, when I’ve had conversations with teenagers about the music they either like or dislike, the operating assumption is often that our natural tastes in music are fixed, while the idea of growing towards more refined musical tastes seems like an anachronism for many. (I’ve explored this in more depth in my articles on music HERE and HERE.)
Or consider how in the realm of ethics, our society increasingly praises lifestyle choices that require minimum effort. Under the rubric of “being true to yourself”, people are discouraged from working towards behaviors that go against the grain of what comes naturally, as if virtues that arise after a process of struggle are somehow contrived and artificial. Our sexual tastes, like our musical tastes, are often talked about as if they are fixed and cannot be modified through training and effort. According to this way of thinking, the best we can do is be like Elsa in the Disney film Frozen: stop trying to be the good girl everyone expects you to be, since the only path to true redemption lies in learning to “let it go” and be yourself—to realize the authentic person you are inside.
In these and other areas of contemporary life, realizing your authentic self is often correlated to following the path of least resistance. The implication is that spending years to develop habits and dispositions that do not come naturally is somehow repressive, hypocritical, less authentic, less “true to yourself” and less genuine than following your natural impulses.
With such notions running so deep in our culture, it isn’t surprising that many people unconsciously assume that gratefulness is more genuine when it exists as a raw emotion that simply comes upon us. According to this narrative, an attitude of gratitude is something that some people simply have and other people do not.
In reality, the habits, attitudes and impulses that are natural to us can be trained and altered. This is clear both from Biblical wisdom as well as from the emerging science of neuroplasticity. Through difficult effort and habituation we can actually rewire the neuro-circuitry of our brains so that virtuous patterns of thinking and acting—patterns that once felt artificial and contrived—start to become second-nature to us. Anyone who has learned a foreign language or a musical instrument has experienced this process at work. It’s time to begin thinking of gratitude in a similar way—as a skill that only becomes natural to us after much practice.
Don’t take my word for it – brain scientists are now talking about how with enough practice a person can rewire their brains to exist in a constant state of gratitude. (See my post ‘Gratitude Changes the Brain.’)
There is nothing wrong with saying “Do what comes naturally” as long as we understand that each of us has the power to control what eventually comes to feel naturally to us. The theologian Tom Wright talked about this principle in with Trevin Wax interviewed him about his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (in the UK the book is titled Virtue Reborn). Wright explained how there’s something to be said for doing “what comes naturally”, but only when we appreciate that what comes naturally to each person is the result of thousands of small choices over many years:
“we modern westerners – and even more postmodern westerners – are trained by the media and public discourse to think that ‘letting it all out’ and ‘doing what comes naturally’ are the criteria for how to behave. There is a sense in which they are – but only when the character has been trained so that ‘what comes naturally’ is the result of that habit-forming training….
“The illustration I sometimes use is that when you learn to drive a car, the idea is that you will quickly come to do most of the things ‘automatically’, changing gear, using the brakes, etc., and that you will develop the ‘virtues’ of a good driver, looking out for other road users, not allowing yourself to be distracted, etc.; but that the highways agencies construct crash barriers and so on so that even if you don’t drive appropriately damage is limited; and also those ‘rumble strips’, as we call them in the UK, which make a loud noise on the tire if you even drift to the edge of the roadway.
“’Rules’ and ‘the Moral Law’ are like those crash barriers and rumble strips. Ideally you won’t need them because you will have learned the character-strengths and will drive down the moral highway appropriately. But the rules are there so that when you start to drift, you are at once alerted and can take appropriate action – particularly figuring out what strengths need more work to stop it happening again….
“I come back to the point: for many in the West, all that matters is ‘doing what comes naturally’. That is an attempt to acquire instantly, without thought or effort, what Christian virtue offers as the fruit of the thought-out, Spirit-led, moral effort of putting to death one kind of behavior and painstakingly learning a different one. When the Spirit is at work, we become more human, not less – which means we have to think more, not less, have to make more moral effort, not less – and there has been a collusion between certain types of Christian teaching and certain types of post-Enlightenment moral teaching as a result of which many Christians are simply unaware of this challenge.” (For more of Wright’s teaching on virtue and Christian character, see this excellent video.)
Science supports this approach to virtue. Lab research shows that human beings have a limited amount of will-power in any given situation (see Roy Baumeister’s blog post ‘The Habits of Virtue’). That is why, if you try to run the Christian life on will-power alone, sooner or later you’ll run into trouble when confronting a big temptation. It is good for each of us to work on gradually increasing our will-power, which we can do through practicing ascetic disciplines; however, the surest defense against temptation lies not in will-power but in habituation. The thousands of tiny choices we face every day are opportunities to strengthen the habits of virtue, to make right behavior natural for us. It’s in all these small choices—the things that don’t seem very important to us at the time—that virtue becomes habituated and we gradually develop the inner resources to remain faithful in the face of more challenging circumstances and temptations. The decisions to serve others, to recall our minds back to prayer when we begin thinking about ourselves, to be patient with those who annoy us, to practice impulse control when we begin mindlessly surfing online, to practice attentiveness towards those we love, to constantly shift loss-frames to gain-frames, to practice mindfulness to control our brains—these and hundreds of other choices we face every day are opportunities to define the types of behaviors that become habituated in us, so that when we find ourselves in an extremely challenging situation, we won’t have to rely on will-power alone, but can act automatically out of habit.
Of course, it isn’t a strict either-or. The reality is that sometimes our virtuous habits are weakly developed and we need to simply muster up will-power. But ideally, will-power and habituation should have a mutually reciprocal relationship. Tom Wright illustrated this by talking about the virtue of courage in a soldier. A solider who relies on will-power alone to see him through a challenging battle situation will be far less effective than a soldier who has developed courage through thousands of small decisions over the course of many years:
“I remember Rowan Williams describing the difference between a soldier who has a stiff drink and charges off into battle waving a sword and shouting a battle-cry, and the soldier who calmly makes 1000 small decisions to place someone else’s safety ahead of his or her own and then, on the 1001st time, when it really is a life-or-death situation, ‘instinctively’ making the right decision. That, rather than the first, is the virtue of ‘courage’.”
As with courage, so with gratitude. I wrote earlier about how it’s possible to be grateful in the midst of severe suffering, but the way to get to that point (the point of remaining grateful when something really bad happens) is to practice gratitude for the mild inconveniences that disturb us every day. If you set out to preserve a grateful disposition in the midst of small annoyances, know that it will be hard work at first, and that it will feel artificial and contrived. But gradually the grateful state of mind will become the default state of mind. (Again, I recommend this video about what happens in the brain when a person chooses gratitude.)
In his book Search Inside Yourself, Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan described the stages a person has to pass through before a skill or state of mind becomes natural. Describing processes that have been measured and documented elsewhere by neuroscientists, Meng told how a person practicing a new state of mind first passes through a stage he calls “initial access” where they make immediate but small progress towards the new skill or state of mind. The person will quickly reach a plateau where there seems to be no forward progress. However, during the plateau-stage, the brain is actually very busy consolidating the new neuro networks. If the person continues to practice the new skill or state of mind during the plateau stage, eventually they reach a point where they shoot forward to a new watermark before the brain again plateaus to consolidate the new growth. This process continues as the person keeps growing in the new skill or state of mind. The problem is that many people give up in one of the plateau stages, concluding they are just no good at the skill or state of mind. Meng observes,
“I think the lesson to be learned is to avoid feeling discouraged when your [growth] does not seem to be progressing. If you understand the process, you may understand that when change does come, it will come suddenly, and every moment of effort brings you a little closer to that point. The classical analogy is ice breaking up on a frozen lake. To a casual observer, the breakup seems like a sudden phenomenon, but it is actually due to a long period of gradual melting of the underlying ice structure.” (To read more of Meng’s observations about this, see my blog post ‘Stages in Habituation’)
Developing a grateful state of mind is like this. It takes hard work just like any other skill, but if we press on through the plateau-stages (the times when we seem to not be making any progress), eventually the practice of gratefulness will become natural to us.
Gratitude is worth the effort since, once mastered, it is the one virtue that makes all the other virtues easier. It is easily demonstrated that gratitude makes everything else in life become easier. Just look at the face, or general demeanor, of someone who grumbles a lot, and then compare this to the face of someone who is continually grateful. Who appears to find life the most difficult? Which of the two gives the impression that life is laborious? When we lack an attitude of gratefulness, not only does it make life difficult for everyone around us, but we increase the burden in our own life as well. Conversely, by being grateful, we can decrease the burden that difficult circumstances might otherwise place on our lives.
First Steps Towards a Life of Gratitude
Maybe you’re readying this and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I’d like to develop a grateful state of mind, but where do I begin? What’s the first step?”
There is an abundance of online resources aimed to help people answer this very question, many of which have been developed by The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. Psychologists, doctors, counselors, scientists and social science researchers are becoming obsessed with gratitude for its power to combat depression, strengthen the immune system, heal marriages, increase heart-rate coherence, and to simply contribute to overall well-bring. This burgeoning field of gratefulness research offers many helpful tips, from gratitude journals to mindfulness practices, to assist a person become more grateful.
While these techniques are all very useful, for those of us who are Christians the first step is actually so simple that it almost seems like cheating. All you need to do is to remind yourself of three truths that you already know from Scripture to be true. I call these points “the axioms of the spiritual life.” The first step to develop a grateful state of mind is learning to really and truly believe these truths. Here they are:
- The love of God that has been poured out to us in Christ Jesus is so strong that no conceivable hardship can separate us from that love. (Romans 8: 35-39)
- Everything that happens to us is organized by Divine Love for our benefit, even if we can’t understand how. (Romans 8:28; Matthew 10:29-31)
- In response to this love, we are commanded to replace anxious thoughts with a moment-by-moment awareness of all that is lovely, noble and good. (Philippians 4:6-8; 2 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Luke 12:29)
These three axioms of the spiritual life are found throughout the scripture, and it is a worthwhile activity to go through all of the Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount and the epistles, to make a note of every passage where one of these truths can be found. Then ask yourself, do I really and truly believe that no hardship can separate me from the love of God and that everything which happens has been arranged for my benefit? I suggest that if the answer is yes—that is, if we really believe what we already know from scripture to be true—then we would never have an anxious thought again, no matter what was happening around us. Not only that, but we would be constantly rejoicing. Even when people practice evil upon us, we could learn to say, like Joseph in Genesis 50:20, “you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”
Imagine for a moment that every single person in the world had their consciousness continually focused on loving you. Imagine that every single person was working all the time to arrange things for your good. If that was the case, would you have cause to ever worry or complain? Would you experience anxiety about needing to grasp good things for yourself? Obviously not. And yet the reality is that if you are in Christ are in a better position than if every single person in the world had their attention continually focused on arranging things for your advantage. God Himself, the maker and sustainer of the entire universe, has his infinite attention continually focused on arranging every circumstance to your advantage (not what you want, but what will really benefit you). The desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, reflected on this wonderful truth in the following passage, which is simply an extended reflection on the three spiritual axioms mentioned earlier:
“And he must believe that nothing happens apart from God’s providence. In God’s providence everything is absolutely right and whatever happens is for the assistance of the soul. For whatever God does with us, he does out of his love and consideration for us because it is adapted to our needs. And we ought, as the Apostle says, in all things to give thanks for his goodness to us, and never to get het up or become weak-willed about what happens to us, but to accept calmly with lowliness of mind and hope in God whatever comes upon us, firmly convinced, as I said, that whatever God does to us, he does always out of goodness because he loves us, and what he does is always right. Nothing else could be right for us but the way in which he mercifully deals with us.
If a man has a friend and he is absolutely certain that his friend loves him, and if that friend does something to cause him suffering and be troublesome to him, he will be convinced that his friend acts out of love and he will never believe that his friend does it to harm him. How much more ought we to be convinced about God who created us, who drew us out of nothingness to existence and life, and who became a man for our sakes and died for us, and who does everything out of love for us?
It is conceivable that a friend may do something because he loves me and is concerned about me which, in spite of his good intentions, does me harm; this is likely to happen because he does not have complete knowledge and understanding of what my needs and destiny are. But we cannot say the same about God, for he is the fountain of wisdom and he knows everything that is to my advantage, and with this in view he arrange4s everything that concerns me without counting the cost. Again, about the friend who loves me and is concerned about me and conscientiously looks after my welfare: it can certainly happen in certain circumstances that he thinks I need help and yet he is powerless to help me. Even this we cannot say about God. For to him all things are possible; with God nothing is impossible. God, we know, loves and takes care of what he has fashioned. He is the fountain of wisdom and he knows what to do to promote our welfare and nothing is beyond his power. Hence we must be convinced that all he does, he does for our benefit and we ought to receive it with gratitude, as we said before, as coming from a beneficent and loving Master—and this even if some things are distressing, for all things happen by God’s just judgment … [From Dorotheos Of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings]
To know that everything which happens to us is arranged for the assistance of our soul, and to know that even distressing circumstances doesn’t just happen by accident but occurs through God’s just judgment, creates a context in which to situate all our experiences.
Interestingly, the brains of humans seem programed to ignore the important role that context plays in how we perceive the world, ourselves and other people. (Malcomb Gladwell discusses this “flaw” of the brain in his book The Tipping Point, and you can also find information about our tendency to ignore context by googling “fundamental attribution error.”) Because we tend to overlook the important role that context plays in conditioning how we perceive the world, we are not aware of the way our brains constantly create contexts in which to situate our experiences. Often we think we are perceiving an experience in and of itself, and then react to that, when in reality we are perceiving the context our brain has imposed on that experience.
Let’s take some examples from ordinary life (and feel free to change the details to better fit with the types of situations you might encounter). It’s Tuesday afternoon and you are sitting on the couch reading a book. Your sister comes into the room, sees you reading, and makes a comment about your being lazy, suggesting that you ought to be doing something “useful.” Now if you are like most people, immediately your mind will create a context for your sister’s words that runs something like this: “this just proves I have a bad relationship with my sister. She doesn’t understand me and is only saying this because ____ [and here is where you draw on information from your sister’s past behavior towards you, thus bringing to mind a network of other grievances].” Then maybe you start to compare your sister to people you know from other families, and so you begin thinking “Why can’t she just be normal like everyone else?” All of this happens in a split second as you unconsciously create a context in which to situate the unpleasant interaction that has just occurred. The result of interpreting your sister’s actions with this context is irritation and temporary alienation from someone you love. If enough incidents like this build up over time, the alienation can lead to a broken relationship.
Or let’s take another example. Suppose you spend a long time getting a meal ready for your spouse and children, because you know they will be coming home late from work, hungry and tired. You don’t have a lot of food in the house, so you put extra effort into cooking something nice with what you do have. As soon as your family sits down at the table, they begin finding something to complain about – “why don’t we have any gravy to pour on the mashed potatoes?” “Why didn’t you make more of this?” Or maybe they don’t actually complain, but you are hurt that they don’t seem to appreciate the effort you put in. Immediately, almost instinctively, you begin to frame what is happening in terms of the following contexts: (a) your family doesn’t appreciate you; (b) your spouse is a bad example on your children, so no wonder you have the problems that you do; (c) if only your family was more like ______, then we wouldn’t have these problems; (d) the reason my family takes me for granted is because I let them, so maybe it’s time I started looking after myself and practicing some tough love. And on and on.
Do those types of situations sound familiar? In any normal family context, these types of unpleasant incidents happen all the time, and they are made ten times worse by the context our minds create in which to frame these experiences. Because we aren’t mindful to the fact that our brains are doing this (remember, the human brain isn’t very good at appreciating the powerful role that context plays in our perception of the world and other people), we think our negative reactions are simply natural responses to the circumstance itself, whereas in reality the only reason the circumstance affects us like it does is because of the context we unconsciously create for it.
Once we realize that this is what our brains do, we can become proactive in creating positive contexts in which to situate these same experiences. This takes more work, because remember, moving from loss-frames to gain-frames takes double the effort than moving from gain-frames to loss-frames. But one of the ways we can be proactive in creating positive contexts for the situations that disturb us is to remind ourselves of what Dorotheos of Gaza shared in the passage where he expanded on the three axioms of the spiritual life. The saint pointed out that (a) nothing happens apart from God’s providence; (b) whatever happens is for the assistance of our soul; (c) in all things we can give thanks to God for his goodness, and thus avoid becoming het up and irritated.
Here are some additional contexts in which a person might frame the types of annoying experiences that most people have to encounter every day:
- God is sending me this hardship so I can grow in lowliness of mind and humility.
- If everything that happens is organized by Divine Love for my benefit, then there must be a positive purpose to even this, although I don’t know what that purpose is.
- Praise God for this opportunity not to judge. God must know I need lots of practice opportunities for that right now!
- Part of the reason _____ hurt me is simply that he doesn’t know the effect his actions are having on me. If he really knew, he would feel pain; and if I am really honest, I would know that he isn’t trying to hurt me on purpose. Therefore, I can be gentle and patient with him.
- Here’s another trial that has the potential to work patience in me if I let it (James 1:2-3).
- I’m so aware that she is sinning against me, and yet where knowledge of sin would really come in useful (namely, knowledge of my own sin), I’m not very well experienced.
- This is another practice opportunity to persevere in gratefulness in the face of difficulty. They say that any skill takes 10,000 hours of practice for us to truly master. If I have thousands of these experiences, then maybe I’ll develop the spiritual capacities to remain grateful in the face of some really severe suffering, such as persecution or martyrdom.
Of course, the list could go on and on. By now I hope you’re getting the basic point, which is that there are multiple contexts in which we can frame our experiences. The difference between a life of gratefulness vs. a life of grumbling lies in the power of these frames. The difference between a life of joy and a life of miserable self-pity lies in the power of these frames. The difference between a life of love vs. a life of selfishness lies in the power of these frames. The difference between a life of anxiety vs. a life of peace lies in the power of these frames.
At this point an important clarification must be made. It isn’t that there are simply two ways of viewing the same experience and that we must arbitrarily choose one way over another in order to make us feel better. Much of the self-help literature about learned optimism brings us to the point of simply having to choose between two competing contexts, while the only thing regulating this choice is the effect each option will have on our happiness and well-being. Under such a scheme, while there may be good pragmatic reasons for choosing the positive frame over the negative frame (i.e., it will help your immune system, increase your energy levels, improve your heart function, help you to win friends and influence people, and give you more pleasant dreams when you go to sleep), we don’t really have any reason for thinking the positive frame is actually more rational than the negative frame. In the end, we can be plagued with the sneaking suspicion that all we’ve done is to trick our brains through the power of auto-suggestion and self-hypnosis. But this is not a dilemma the Christian finds himself in. The Christian is not tasked with having to make a decision between two competing contexts with nothing more than pragmatic criteria to guide the choice. This is because Christian theology tells us that one context, one way of framing our experiences, really is more accurate to the way the world is than the other.
When we choose to frame our experiences in terms that emphasize everything there is to be grateful for, as Paul did when he wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison, we are actually aligning our minds with the truth about reality. Provided that we stay connected to Christ, the Christian really does live in a universe in which everything is ordered for his ultimate good and in which every event (even unpleasant events) are grounds for deep gratitude and profound joy. Thus, for the Christian gratefulness is so much more than merely good medicine, it’s actually the most rational thing to do. By contrast, every time I grumble and every time I allow anxiety about the future to create stress, I am actually believing a lie since I am essentially saying that something other than God’s design for my life would have been better. To grumble is to commit the ultimate folly of saying I know better than Infinite Wisdom what it is I need, what it is that will benefit me, and what the pathway to my own flourishing should look like.
Putting all of this together leads to a rather counter-intuitive conclusion: if a Christian wishes to be a realist and view everything in the light of cold logic and detached rationality, profound gratitude is the only option.
“shame on us for our ingratitude!”
Saint Mark the Ascetic, in his Letter to Nicolas the Solitary (found in Vol. 1 of The Philokalia), enjoined his disciples to cultivate a condition of moment-by-moment awareness of God’s blessings:
“This my son is how you should begin your life according to God. You should continually and unceasingly call to mind all the blessings which God in His love has bestowed on you in the past, and still bestows for the salvation of your soul. You must not let forgetfulness of evil or laziness make you grow unmindful of these many and great blessings, and so pass the rest of your life uselessly and ungratefully.
“For this kind of continual recollection, pricking the heart like a spur, moves it constantly to confession and humility, to thanksgiving with a contrite soul, and to all forms of sincere effort, repaying God through its virtue and holiness. In this way the heart meditates constantly and conscientiously on the words from the Psalms: ‘What shall I give to the Lord in return for all His benefits towards me?’ (Psalm 116:12).”
Saint Mark is obviously aware of the temptation we all face to forget about God’s blessings. As an antidote he recommended continual recollection and constant meditation on God’s goodness and mercies.
I certainly wasn’t practicing this advice when I travelled to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex England last summer. Instead of meditating on God’s blessings, I was meditating on everything that was wrong in my life, and in the lives of those I loved. I’ve already shared some of the experiences at the monastery that the Lord used to gradually shift my perspective (and the key word here is gradually), but one more experience is worth relating.
One of my goals while I was at the monastery was to talk to Archimandrite Zacharias, a man of exceptional wisdom and erudition who had lived in the community for many years and who had known Elder Sophrony. Before my pilgrimage I read in one of Archimandrite Zacharias’s books, although it was so deep and spiritual that I often couldn’t process more than a paragraph in a single sitting.
I had been told that Elder Zacharias had an uncanny ability to know exactly what to say to help people in their hour of need, and consequently his words of wisdom were much sought-after. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to glean from the wisdom of this exceptional man, I prepared a list of complicated theological and personal questions to ask him. Rather frustratingly, however, every time I tried to approach the elder with my list, he was busy ministering to crowds of pilgrims, some of whom had come from all over the world just to talk to him.
Finally I asked one of the nuns to set up an appointment for me to talk to him. However, as my time at the monastery approached its close, the arrangements had yet to be made.
On my last day at the monastery, I saw the elder exiting church after morning prayer. I didn’t have my list of questions with me, so I simply ran up behind him and exclaimed “Father Zacharias, give me a word of wisdom!”
The elderly man stopped walking and slowly turned around to look at me. For a few seconds he patiently stared at me with his unassuming yet piercing gaze. Then he looked at heaven as if in silent prayer.
By this time I was getting nervous. What was Elder Zacharias thinking? What was he going to say? Was he accustomed to having strangers randomly accost him and demand a word of wisdom?
Then Elder Zacharias turned to me and began praising God for all the blessings in the world. He praised God for the beauties of nature, for the comforts we take for granted, and for all the blessings around us all the time if only we have eyes to see. Then he ended by exclaiming “And shame on us for our ingratitude!”
With that, as if he had just discharged something on his heart, Elder Zacharias walked silently away.