Gratitude as Source of Happiness

Lately, I have been thinking of gratitude and how important it is. Two memories come to mind immediately. One is a comment a late friend made reflecting with a sense of humour on his somewhat rebellious childhood. He said: “I’m grateful that my parents let me live.”

The other recollection was a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy is complaining to her younger brother Linus that her life is a drag, that she doesn’t get the breaks other people do, that nothing goes right for her. Linus suggests that, at times like this, she should count her blessings. That sets Lucy off on another rant and she finally asks him to name one blessing she has. To which he replies: “Well, for one thing, you have a little brother who loves you.” She then goes wailing into his arms, as he comments shyly aside: “Every now and then I say the right thing.”

In both these instances, the gentle humour brings home the source of gratitude. It is both the fundamental reality of being alive and the caring that makes life worthwhile. I think too that humour that is gentle and not derisive is an expression of hope. To see the humour in something can for example immediately dissipate a mounting anger. I recall once, at a family dinner that was becoming tense, my younger brother, Mike, spoke out with the words: “May I play through?” The tension was immediately dissolved by laughter.

The ancient practice of grace before meals is an expression of gratitude for the food that keeps us alive. It is also gratefulness for the sharing of food with those who share our lives. This again is the caring that gives meaning to our lives. The very word “grace” means gratitude, thankfulness.

Twentieth century author, G. K. Chesterton, writes with thoughtful humour about gratitude “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful when Santa Claus put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

What emerges from his words is that gratitude implies a recognition of gift, and that the basic gift is life itself. Inseparably, it is recognition of the meaningfulness of that gift, which in turn is bound up with our connection with one an other. Chesterton further stresses that gratitude is the source of happiness. If we do not experience our life, our very self, as a gift, but as an accident or even a burden, we tend toward resentment, which readily flows into hostility and even destructive behaviour. Gratitude even further implies that the gift of life is a valuable gift; that we are each a being of sacred worth.

If we reflect on the billions of years of the unfolding of the universe, and the stunning reality, as scientist Brian Swimme brings out, that the stars are our ancestors, we may experience a sense of wonder and awe that we are part of an immense process, and one in which everything is connected.

Yet this awareness and conviction can be readily challenged and is quite precarious. The experience of limitations, faults, and even betrayals, in ourselves and others, can obscure our sense of underlying worth. The problems of society and the reality of climate change can also be very threatening. Having gentle time being with ourselves and being with others–solitude and friendship–are essential to uncovering our intrinsic sacred worth. Concern for ourselves and those nearest to us can also push us toward active concern for our world and our planet.

Gratefulness does not demand an unreal perfection or completeness. This awareness is expressed in the novel by Chaim Potok. A son tells his father that he is troubled by the realization of death. The father replies that something does not have to be forever to be good; it can be precious precisely because it is not forever.

Fragments of the thought of Plato and T. S. Eliot come to mind. Plato spoke of understanding as remembering. I think it can mean that when we come to awareness of basic truths about life–including its gift character–it is like uncovering something we already somehow knew implicitly. And remembering is perhaps less about past facts than coming home to who we truly are, especially our sacred worth. I have long appreciated as well the words of poet, T. S. Eliot. ““We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

Grateful recognition of the simple things in life–a hot coffee or tea, a warm sun, the smile of a friend, a courtesy from a stranger, a kind word given or received, a loving or humourous memory, a piece of beautiful music, the song of a bird or the chirping of a cricket–all these can bring a quiet joy to our heart, an implicit gratitude for our life and for our home in this universe. It we are open, an underlying gratitude can ease our burdens, alleviate our self judgment, and our judgment of others, and flow into a greater openness of heart, a generosity of spirit, and a more active concern for others and our world.

May you come to experience more fully the sacredness of each of us and the preciousness of the gift of life. And may you respond more fully to the challenge is to care gently for its unfolding within and around you.

Norman King, July 11, 2024

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