I saw a recording of a speech given by Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and founder of the positive psychology field of study. I want to share an idea he suggested.
If you haven’t heard by now (and it’s surprising how many people haven’t), positive psychology differs from much of what was studied in the 20th century in that, instead of examining and devising therapies for mental illness and psychopathology, positive psychology asks such questions as, “What really makes people happy?” “Why do people stay happy?” “What has to happen for people to feel good at about who they are, the work do, the place where they live and those who surround them?”
Among the many things that came out of studies led by Dr. Seligman is the importance of gratitude as a practice, a habit and an expression of value.
Many religions incorporate some kind of gratitude practice in prayers, ritual, and regular worship. The effect of sacred and secular gratitude practice might as well be the same: you look around and acknowledge that who you are, where you are and how you’re feeling right now have a lot to do people, places and things around you that you tend not to notice that often.
Do this often enough and the grumbles and grievances and, perhaps, inconveniences, if not downright disasters and unforeseen losses, are complicated by a certainty that, even in the worst conditions, things are not as bad as they seem.
I’m reminded here of Dorothy Day, the journalist and social activist who, when asked why she could remain so positive through a life of challenge, conflict and struggle, she merely replied, “Too much beauty.”
It can be hard to see the beauty when you’re seriously ill, you’ve recently lost a loved one, you’re fired from a job for no fault of your own, you’ve made a mistake that has harmed someone or you’re just plain lonely on a Saturday night. Gratitude practice reminds you of that beauty not only exists but that it is possibly more varied and prevalent than you thought.
Seeing beauty, even in the worst circumstances, doesn’t hurt and can provide a moment of relief that can give us the strength to find our way to a health, healing and happiness.
Gratitude can become a habit through practice and daily affirmations. A positive psychology study in a nursing home revealed that residents lived longer, had better social lives, were better at coping with change and needed fewer doctor visits when they kept a diary, or used some other daily reminder of the things for which they were grateful.
G.K. Chesterton, a witty English writer best known for his Father Brown mystery series, linked gratitude to the identification and appreciation of the sense of wonder, which, he believed, was the essence of the religious experience.
For Chesterton, the sense of wonder was a great, big, continuous wow! The path to this wow wasn’t as easy as looking up at golden sunlight or fireworks in the sky because, as Chesterton often acknowledged, the English sky is mostly overcast, wet, gloomy and gray. He advised that we should accept gray skies and other kinds of limitation with humility and rediscover our childhood innocence in the warmth of a room, the glow of a candle, laughter and the joy of good food and friends.
Gratitude as an expression of value is not about what makes us special, unique or worthy of privilege and good fortune. It is the recognition of the importance of gifts, obvious and subtle, that sustain us, whether or not we have done anything to deserve them.
Which brings me to an exercise Dr. Seligman mentioned, the gratitude testimonial. Students were asked to think of a living person who made a significant, positive contribution to their lives. The nature of that contribution was open to broad interpretation. What mattered was that the students’ lives were made better because of what that person did.
Students then composed a speech about how this person changed their lives, thus compelling them to review that event and bring forward from the past a moment (or more) for which they were grateful.
That was only part of the assignment. After completing the speech, students found the address of that person’s residence, office or place of business, and (presumably when classes weren’t meeting), traveled there. Without making an appointment or warning that person in any way, showed up, asked politely to see that person and then, when that person was within earshot, read their speech to that person.
What did this accomplish?
First, students had to do a gratitude survey in which they usually came up with more than one person, thereby enriching their appreciation of the many people who had helped them, or had been a gift in some way. They had to prioritize their selections and choose one that was reasonably accessible.
Second, the act of putting a person’s contribution into words had the same effect as writing a journal or memoir. It brought a memory into the present and framed it in light of the student’s current understanding and education.
Third, the pilgrimage introduce an element of risk. We can imagine many ways in which gaining access may be problematic, and reciting the speech may lead to confusion, embarrassment, impatient foot-tapping from the person’s nearest and dearest, and that disquieting moment when this person admits to having no memory of you, and can’t recall ever doing what you’re grateful for.
Seligman said that the exercise ended up being beneficial for both the student and the person in ways that neither could predict.
And it made both rather happy, for a few minutes and more.
This said, I want to thank you for reading this. I believe that kind attention paid to another’s efforts furthers that effort in vital ways. This happened when I was a young writer and couldn’t wait to show my girlfriend what I had come up with that day.
Today, that girlfriend is my wife and I still show her what I’ve written. She is my muse, my inspiration and my best friend.
What if the reader and the writer never meet, or share a word across cyberspace?
For a moment, let’s be grateful for those whose words, however we found them, were exactly those we needed to read.
Thank you very much.