Monday, November 30, 2015

The Gift of Gratitude

For a while there was a vogue in Tweets labeled #firstworldproblems, recounting difficulties most people in the third world wish they had. Like “The air conditioning in my Audi does not work as well as my wife's BMW.” Or “My Apple Watch didn't register the correct distance on my 10k around Regents Park.” Or “Asked for strawberry chantilli in my Acai and received chocolate instead.” I got these from a website named Which apparently is defunct since the last post was June 19, 2015. So you can add another first world problem: “I registered a domain name for a hot trend that suddenly went cold.” The idea is that we are so fortunate in the affluent West that our biggest problems and annoyances seem trivial in a world where the majority of people make less than $2 a day and are dealing with problems like poverty, hunger, war, human trafficking and the like. We don't know how good we have it.

Although on some levels we don't have it as good as some places, like the Scandinavian countries or Canada or the Netherlands. The US doesn't even make it into the top 10 happiest countries as rated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Nor the list created by the UN. Nor the one created by the Gallup Poll. In fact Gallup's methodology is probably the best because rather than looking at educational levels and economics and various official statistics, which led to the other lists being exclusively made up of northern European countries, Gallup simply asked people how they felt the day before, whether they had laughed or smiled, if they were well-rested, if they felt as if they were treated with respect, if they had learned something interesting and whether they had felt enjoyment. Based on the answers people gave them they rated Paraguay as the happiest country, followed by Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Venezuella, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua! Of the typical members of the other top ten lists of happiest nations only 3, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands, cracked the top 20 spots in the Gallup poll. And the United States was rated above Denmark and Finland, which usually rank higher in the other lists. Plus in the World Health Organization's list of countries with the highest suicide rates, Finland and Iceland rate higher than most European countries and higher than the US. You might be surprised to find out that Monroe County has the highest suicide rate in Florida, despite our beautiful weather, water, flora and fauna. One possible explanation is that if you are feeling depressed anyway, being around a bunch of happy people makes you feel even worse.

My point, besides a caveat on believing surveys of nebulous things, is that one's emotional state is affected not just by what you have but your attitude towards it. A year after winning the lottery, those people are just as happy or unhappy as they were before. In fact studies have found that money can only buy happiness up to the point where you can comfortably take care of your basic needs. People who make more than that amount are no happier. A recent study showed that having more frequent sex made you happier—but only up to once a week! Having sex more frequently than that did not increase happiness. So if you lack these basic things, you are likely to be unhappy. But ultimately it's not how much you have but how much you value what you have. It is about gratitude.

People reading the Bible for the first time often get the impression that God is insecure because he asks for all this praise and thanksgiving. But really it is for our sake. Science shows us that in fact gratitude benefits the one expressing it. Of the many habits that cultivate happiness one of the most important is being grateful. Because to be thankful for what you have, you have to look at specific elements of your life and see them as enjoyable and helpful. You also have to realize that things could be worse, that you are better off than you could be. In other words, being grateful gives you a sense of proportion. However imperfect it is, your life is not the worst one ever. There are also good things in there and you really should be thankful for them.

Psychologists have found that a simple but profound way to raise people's spirits is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down 3 or more things for which you are grateful. They can be large or small, things that happened that day or ongoing states of being, events or abilities or people who have had a positive impact in your life. People who do this faithfully for 30 days straight tend to find themselves to be more optimistic, to spend more time exercising, get longer and more refreshing sleep, and to have fewer symptoms of physical illness. They are more likely to help other people and to make progress toward their personal goals. And all this comes from what we might call “counting your blessings.”

It is interesting that being more grateful leads to helping others, because Jesus very consciously, when being asked what is the greatest commandment, threw in the second greatest as well. Loving God should lead to loving others. And again guess who benefits? Scientists found that if people performed 5 acts of kindness in one day, they received the same benefits of increased well-being as those who kept a weekly gratitude journal. And altruistic activity is another scientifically verified element of happiness. Being kind is more important to being happy than a high IQ or having more education. Martin Seligman, one of the major figures of the science of positive psychology, says, “As a professor, I don't like this, but the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love.” And again the Bible anticipates this by urging us to be generous and compassionate towards others. It is truly better to give than to receive.

We humans do have a tendency to fixate on negative things, to be ingrates and to focus on ourselves and not want to expend the energy to help others. So we really need to make an effort to be grateful and to go out of our way to be of aid to other people. That means doing so on purpose. And having a purpose in life is another scientifically validated element of happiness. Drifting through life might make good fodder for introspective novels and indie films but it's not good for real people. Having a greater purpose for what you do gives your life and your struggles and even your triumphs meaning. It gives your talents focus. It gives you perspective. It gives you a direction. It gives you a goal or goals.

For Christians following Jesus give us purpose. Using our gifts to show our love for God and for others as Jesus does, spreading the good news of God's love and forgiveness and peace, letting his Spirit work through us and shape us into his image, joining with others to reflect our multifaceted God in all we think, say and do makes our lives more than just eating, sleeping and working. It means we matter, others matter and what we do in this world matters.

It is only right that we thank God for all that he has made and all that he has done for us. It is only right that we help one another. It is only right that we have a purpose in life, especially one tied to the other two. But who would have thought that gratitude, kindness and purpose would also be key elements of what makes us happy?

And that gives us an insight on God and his rules. They are not arbitrary, nor are they like the rules your ancient Aunt Clara has for where you can sit and how you can behave when you visit her house. God rules are simply the operating instructions of life. They are reflections of his nature and the nature of the universe he has created. Some things are bad not simply because he decided they should be but because they go against the way we and the world are meant to work. Some things are good not because God fancies them but because they facilitate and work in harmony with how we and the universe are meant to function. What is morally good is also good for us in the long run. Saying no to that extra slice of pie may feel like deprivation at the time and exercise may seem like torture while you are doing it but ultimately they benefit you. In the same way refraining from indulging in certain dangerous pleasures and investing time in helping those who can't pay you back rather than chilling with Netflix may not feel like fun but you will ultimately be glad you made those choices. Praising God for all he is and thanking him for all he has done, coming to the aid of others, and making becoming more Christlike your purpose are good for us and and for all people. And when you let yourself really get into them they feel good, too. As the psalmist says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)

Thanks be to God!

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