The sometimes impossibility of gratitude

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How do you be thankful for people who have done the wrong thing by you? How do you find something good about them, when all you see is the bad? What do you do when negative thoughts about that person and situation, continually fill your brain to capacity, making it almost impossible to think any positive thoughts at all? Why should you make any effort to change these negative thoughts and redirect that (valuable) mental energy toward being grateful for that same person?

Research is littered with the positive physical and mental health outcomes of people who are grateful and thankful and who practice a lifestyle of positivity (Howells, 2012). There is also a lot of research surrounding the negative impact of unforgiveness, resentment, anger and anxiety on physical and mental health of individuals (Howells, 2012; Staicu & Cutov, 2010; Worthington, Witvliet, Pietrini and Miller, 2007). In fact, the correlation between anger and negative health outcomes, has been known for centuries (Staicu & Cutov, 2010). In the religion of Buddhism, anger is named, along with greed and foolishness, as the “Three Poisons of the Mind” (Staicu & Cutov, 2010).

What do these poisons do to the body? Many believe they make us sick. You don’t have to look too far in google scholar to see studies showing the links between negative emotions and illness and disease. For example, studies show unforgiveness can contribute to gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and stress-related illness (Worthington et. al., 2007). Anger can contribute to heart disease and eating disorders (Staicu & Cutov, 2010). And who suffers when you remain in bondage to unforgiveness, resentment, anger or ungratefulness? Only the person holding on. If I hang on to ungrateful thoughts, which can spring from anger or resentments or many other places, I risk my mental health being negatively affected as well as sickness in my body.

If negative emotions are harmful long term (I’m discussing the long term “hanging onto stuff, being consistently angry/resentful/ungrateful/bitter), then I’m guessing it’s in our best interest to be proactive in turning that sad ship around! My thoughts are that gratitude is not only a powerful antithesis against the ‘poisons’ of potentially damaging emotions, but it can also be the key to altering our views of the people and situations which require our gratefulness, instead of our resentment, anger or the grudge we are holding onto.
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So, this week, I’ve decided to take some important steps toward gratefulness.  I want to drown my negative thoughts about this situation and the people involved, with whispers of “thank you” and in finding what I am grateful for in that person and that situation (Howells, 2012).

Because, we can talk about being grateful, but it is my belief that until it seems impossible to feel and act out of gratitude toward an impossible situation or person, then our ‘gratitude muscles’ have not really been properly exercised. Sometimes, just maybe it’s not until we really don’t want to be grateful for someone or something, that the true miracle and gift of reciprocal gratitude can truly be given.

I realise it is entirely unrealistic to believe we will always walk in complete peace, forgiveness and gratefulness every day that we walk this earth. However, having tasted the effects of ungratefulness against the refreshing balm of a grateful heart, I do believe I know which one I would prefer.

Howells, K. (2012). Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, Sense Publishers.

Staicu, M. L. and Cutov, M. (2010). Anger and health risk behaviours, Journal of Medicine and Life, 3(4): 372-375.

Worthington, E., Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P. & Miller, A. (2007). Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being: A Review of Evidence for Emotional Versus Decisional Forgiveness, Dispositional Forgivingness, and Reduced Unforgiveness, Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 30, 291-302.

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Another day in paradise

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“Thankfulness takes the sting out of adversity” – Sarah Young.

I read this quote a few years ago when I was going through a particularly difficult time. Both my parents were diagnosed with cancer within weeks of each other, I was juggling uni, young children, and lots of other obligations weighed heavily upon me. Needless to say, it really wasn’t a fun time.

Cue today, where I opened Margaret Visser’s delightful book, “The Gift of Thanks: The roots, persistence, and paradoxical meanings of a social ritual”.  I would say, the truth of thankfulness, or gratitude, is in the title: yes, gratitude is rooted in culture and tradition. Yes, it takes persistence. Aha, there is so much of a paradox when it comes to gratitude, or thanksgiving, and of course, it is a social ritual. So what does this mean for me? What does it mean for you?

Well, Visser takes us back to the roots of thanks. A lot of our English words have arisen from Hebrew Old Testament. Visser discusses a lot of cultural adaptations to thankfulness, (it is worth a read) but here, I was interested in what she had to say about the Israelite’s in biblical times.

As you may or may not know, the Israelites in biblical times, wandered around the desert a lot (ahem .. for about 40 years … it’s 27 degrees here today and I ain’t coping … 40 years in the desert?? Nah, I’m good). So you can imagine that in the desert, there was an awful lot of complaining, “God where are you, I hate my life, my enemies are mean, I lost my favourite shoes, can we have something to eat other than this horrid stuff that falls from the sky, and by the way, I hate quail”).

Then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there is “praise” to their God, for providing, getting them out of trouble, bringing rain, or whatever else they were thankful for at the time. Now this is where it gets fun. When the Hebrew word praise, or “todah” is translated into English, it is often as “thanksgiving” or “gratitude” (Visser, 2008, p. 197). Furthermore, in the old testament, the word “todah” is used when there has been an offering – an action. As Visser says, “one DID todah” (2008, p. 197).

So, basically, the “praise” of the Hebrew people was an “offering” to God. Now, the word “offering” virtually means “gift”. Therefore, the sacrifice of praise or thanksgiving, is a means of giving back, or a gift in return (Visser, 2008 p. 198).

At the risk of sounding like a Sunday school teacher, if anyone is remotely familiar with people in the bible (I was raised in Sunday school), they really went through some horrid times. Noah was laughed at for building an ark, Daniel almost got eaten by lions, Joseph was sold by his brothers, David’s child died and there are many others who faced horrible life circumstances. According to biblical commentary, David wrote the psalms. If you have ever read any of them, David was was often in anguish. He messed up, he hurt people, his enemies tried to kill him and he chased after another man’s wife (and then had that man killed at war … nice one, Dave). But then, he almost always ended with “praise” or “todah”.

What am I trying to get at? I do have a point, never fear …

Perhaps the “praise”, the “thanksgiving”, the “offering” was more than just an acknowledgement and a giving back of what had been received (which Howells, 2012, defines as the very nature of the gratitude practice), but perhaps it was also, as Sarah Young said, taking “the sting out of adversity”.

I like to think so. I hope so.  There is often so much suffering and so much adversity.  We don’t need to be thankful for it at the time, or even straight away after.  Sometimes, that is just counter productive and even inappropriate (Howells, 2012).  However, perhaps next time we hit a road block, a bump in the path, a circumstance that we didn’t see coming, we can ourselves stop and “give thanks” – to the universe, your parents, your family, friends, or even God. With an action. A note, a gift, a text, a call, a prayer …

And maybe, just maybe, it will lessen the sting.

Howells, K. (2012). Gratitude in education: a radical view. Sense publishers.

Visser, M. (2008). The gift of thanks: the roots, persistence, and paradoxical meanings of a social ritual. Toronto, Canada: Harper.

More than just saying “thanks”.

“Gratitude”.

It’s such a zen word. So hip. So philosophical. And those who use this word are almost always very in touch with their blessings and the good things in their lives.

When I hear the word gratitude, I often think about how much I DON’T use gratitude or feel it enough.

I’m a Mum, and the first thing I think of is how I’ve often told my kids they need to be more grateful and think about everything they have compared to others who perhaps don’t have much (ie, Kids complain about what’s for dinner, cue my usual reply: “You kids are so ungrateful! There’s kids in the world who don’t even have food to eat tonight!!”). Then I think about my own attitude day to day and how much of my thoughts are bound up in worries and concerns and general annoyances.

What if I turned those thoughts into little moments of gratefulness for those very situations and troubles? Better still, how much better would my relationships be, if I practised gratitude for the people in my life?

Everyone has different views, thoughts and opinions on what gratitude looks like.

I’m sure there are SO many ways of practising gratitude … and that’s the thing – gratitude must be a practice. Otherwise it’s just nice thoughts and nice words. Gratitude must be put into action.

And herein lies the challenge … to practice gratitude in such a way that I am making a change, impacting people’s lives and creating better relationships. What would this look like? What would it look like in my home, my community, my work, my school? It sounds radical!

Well, according to Dr. Kerry Howells, gratitude is indeed a radical view (2012). Gratitude has the power to change whole communities, and importantly, school communities. In particular, the practise of gratitude has the potential and indeed, has been proven, to build better relationships, strengthen student engagement and increase resilience (Howells, 2012).

I cannot wait to see how this fascinating and incredibly enriching practice can help to transform my teaching practice and the lives of the students with whom I am in contact.

The gratitude journey begins … thank you for joining me!