The Power of Choosing to Be Grateful

Note: I finished this piece as the San Bernardino shooting was unfolding. While it is not directly related to that event, I think its message of the importance of gratitude for God’s gifts (including the love that even our brothers’ attacks can awaken in us) may be especially appropriate as a response to that event. I join with all my brothers and sisters whose loving thoughts and prayers are with everyone who is touched by the tragedy in San Bernardino.

With the Thanksgiving holiday just past, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. In line with this Thanksgiving theme, a colleague recently passed on to me a New York Times article by Arthur C. Brooks titled “Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.” This article highlights what many studies have shown: that cultivating an “attitude of gratitude,” to use the old cliché, is beneficial to ourselves and others in many ways. A Course in Miracles would certainly agree—in its view, gratitude practiced in the right spirit is an essential part of the path to God.

Brooks’s article begins with an account of celebrating Thanksgiving many years ago with his new wife’s family in Barcelona, Spain. They naturally had many questions about this American holiday, but one question especially caught his attention: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?” Twenty-four years later, Brooks’s answer is yes, because in his view, being grateful is a decision rather than a feeling dependent upon circumstances: “In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.”

To make his case, Brooks goes on to cite a few of the many scientific studies that show the benefits of gratitude and of consciously cultivating positive emotions in general. For instance, a 2003 study showed that a group of participants who kept a list of things they were grateful for over a ten-week period reported much greater life satisfaction than participants who instead kept either a list of problems or a list of neutral events. Other studies have shown that something as simple as turning your lips up into a smile for 20 seconds (regardless of whether you actually feel happy) or imagining that you feel grateful for another person’s actions can induce the brain to display patterns associated with positive emotions.

Another study showed, unsurprisingly, that expressing gratitude to others has a positive effect on them: High-powered but insecure people who were criticized tended to respond with a counterattack, but when the same people were shown gratitude, they responded with much more positive behavior. In short, gratitude has virtually no downside. In a humorous aside, Brooks says that the only bad news is a study in which people who were asked to express gratitude experienced an intensified sweet tooth—so grateful people may need to watch their weight!

In light of the benefits of gratitude, Brooks goes on to describe some specific ways we can cultivate it. First, we can have “interior gratitude” (which we can foster by keeping a gratitude list) for everything from the greatest boons to the most seemingly trivial pleasures. Brooks offers the specific personal example of being internally grateful to a person who harshly criticized a book of his and to people who attend his speeches (and read his articles!). Second, we can express “exterior gratitude” by doing things as simple as writing messages of thanks to the people in our lives—something Brooks actually did with the person who criticized his book, an act that led to a positive response from that person.

In sum, Brooks heartily agrees with the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said, “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.” This is an attitude we can cultivate regardless of our feelings or external circumstances. Therefore, Brooks counsels, “Make gratitude a routine, independent of how you feel….Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional ‘authenticity’ that holds you back from your bliss.” In short: Give thanks!

I think A Course in Miracles would agree, since it places a major emphasis on gratitude. It would especially agree with Brooks’s contention that gratitude is something that can be chosen, regardless of what we are feeling in the moment. In the Course’s view, because there are always real reasons to be grateful (as we will see shortly) and our feelings follow our thoughts, it is always possible to turn our thoughts to things that are worthy of gratitude, and when we do that, the happy feelings associated with gratitude will naturally follow.

As it does with so many aspects of life, though, the Course critiques human gratitude and sharply distinguishes between inappropriate and appropriate forms of thankfulness. (I’m drawing quite a bit here from an excellent article by Robert on this topic, titled “Why Should We Be Grateful?”) One category of inappropriate gratitude is what the Course at one point calls “thanks because of suffering” (W-pI.195.2:1): being thankful because another person is worse off than you are, as when we say in response to seeing a suffering person, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (So God didn’t give any grace to this poor sap?) Another category of inappropriate gratitude is being thankful for all the things that are doing such a great job of stroking your ego—that promotion, that fancy house, that sparkling wit of yours, that victory by your team in the Super Bowl—all those things that in your mind say what an incredible person you are.

What, then, are the things that the Course wants us to be grateful for? In essence, they are intangible things that in principle belong to everyone. We are to be thankful for the intangible blessings that God has bestowed on all of us: His creation of us, His assurance that we remain as He created us, His boundless love for us, His gift of eternal life, His provision of a way out of our illusory pain and suffering, etc. We are also to be thankful for our brothers (and express it verbally when guided to do so by the Holy Spirit). We are to be thankful for these beautiful Sons of God whom God created one with us, and who shower us with heavenly blessings whatever their bodies may do in this illusory world.

What about what their bodies do in this illusory world, though? Certainly people do lots of things that don’t seem to merit gratitude, things that the Course itself regards as attacks. A couple of things come to my mind. First, attacks are calls for love according to the Course, and therefore even they are actually cause for thankfulness: “Gratitude is due [your brother] for both his loving thoughts and his appeals for help [i.e., his attacks], for both are capable of bringing love into your awareness if you perceive them truly” (T-12.I.6:2). If both our brothers’ love and their attacks allow love to arise in us, whatever they do is cause for thankfulness.

Second, even though the above is true, as we look upon our brothers the Course wants us to place more emphasis on their loving words and actions, and less emphasis on their attacks. We want to continually remind ourselves that only the loving things they say and do are genuine evidence of their true nature. The following passage, long a favorite of mine, captures this idea of emphasizing our brothers’ expressions of love and being grateful for them:

Dream of your brother’s kindnesses instead of dwelling in your dreams on his mistakes. Select his thoughtfulness to dream about instead of counting up the hurts he gave. Forgive him his illusions, and give thanks to him for all the helpfulness he gave. And do not brush aside his many gifts because he is not perfect in your dreams. (T-27.VII.15:3-6)

We are even to be grateful for the expressions of love we give to our brothers, for if giving is receiving, then our gifts to others are our gifts to ourselves. Even if our gifts to another person are not externally acknowledged or appreciated, if they are given truly we can trust that “in his mind there is a part that joins with yours in thanking you” (W-pI.197.4:2). We can trust that whenever we give true gifts, “In your gratitude are they accepted universally, and thankfully acknowledged by the Heart of God Himself” (W-pI.197.4:5).

What, then, about giving thanks for things and events of the world? If we are seeing with the perspective I’m describing here, then even this becomes appropriate and beneficial. As we look through the eyes of Christ, rather than seeing the specific blessings in our lives as evidence of how great our egos are, in the words of Robert’s article, “We see the specific blessings…as disclosures of a generous reality.” God is lovingly giving these things to us because they can be used as tools for returning to Him, because they can help us perform our specific part in His plan for salvation. And rather than being thankful for these things because other people don’t have them, we can trust that those people will be provided with all the things they need to return to God, to the degree that they open their hearts and minds to His Love.

As I’m sure you can see, gratitude can be a tricky thing, because its appropriateness depends so much on the answer to the question the Course so often asks: “What is it for?” Does it serve to reinforce the thought system of the ego or that of the spirit? Are you grateful to your partner because she’s such a great trophy wife for those cocktail parties with the rich and famous, or are you grateful to her because she is a holy being with whom you are joined in a joyous joint special function? Are you grateful for beautiful flowers because they offer some modicum of solace in this cruel and hopeless world, or because they are earthly reflections of a heavenly beauty beyond what can be seen? Where in our minds our gratitude really comes from makes all the difference.

That being said, the Course is clear that cultivating and expressing gratitude in the proper spirit is, like the everyday human courtesy Jesus praises in the Urtext, “a very healing habit to acquire.” Brooks highlights the benefits of gratitude in his article, and the Course highlights even greater benefits in its pages. It tells us that as we give thanks to God and share His glad tidings with the world, He gives thanks to us, and thus the power of gratitude is so immensely magnified that in the end, it embraces everyone:

Today in gratitude we lift our hearts above despair, and raise our thankful eyes, no longer looking downward to the dust. We sing the song of thankfulness today, in honor of the Self that God has willed to be our true Identity in Him. Today we smile on everyone we see, and walk with lightened footsteps as we go to do what is appointed us to do….

Thanks be to you who heard [God’s message], for you become the messenger who brings His Voice with you, and lets It echo round and round the world. Receive the thanks of God today, as you give thanks to Him. For He would offer you the thanks you give, since He receives your gifts in loving gratitude, and gives them back a thousand and a hundred thousand more than they were given. He will bless your gifts by sharing them with you. And so they grow in power and in strength, until they fill the world with gladness and with gratitude. (W-pI.123.4:1-6:5)

Brooks is right, then: Gratitude is something we can and should cultivate and express each and every day. Given its priceless benefits, why would we do anything else? The benefits are so all-encompassing that I suspect the Course would agree with the famous line attributed to Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

In that spirit, and because Brooks gives us some specific practices in his article, I want to end with a specific practice as well. Workbook Lesson 315, “All gifts my brothers give belong to me,” is a glorious paean to the power of gratitude, ending with a beautiful prayer of thanks to God. I encourage you, then, to read aloud the following lines from this lesson and really let them sink in. Open your mind to the possibility that what they say is not just poetic hyperbole, but is literally true. Let the gratitude they speak of arise in you and fill your heart with joy:

Each day a thousand treasures come to me with every passing moment. I am blessed with gifts throughout the day, in value far beyond all things of which I can conceive. A brother smiles upon another, and my heart is gladdened. Someone speaks a word of gratitude or mercy, and my mind receives this gift and takes it as its own. And everyone who finds the way to God becomes my savior, pointing out the way to me, and giving me his certainty that what he learned is surely mine as well.

I thank You, Father, for the many gifts that come to me today and every day from every Son of God. My brothers are unlimited in all their gifts to me. Now may I offer them my thankfulness, that gratitude to them may lead me on to my Creator and His memory. (W-pII.315.1:1-2:3)

I thank you for taking this journey to gratitude with me!

Source of material commented here.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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