“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” —Albert Schweitzer
Everybody says, “Happy holidays!” But are you happy enough? Could you be happier, and how can you get that way?
Research psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough and Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh believe grateful feelings can bring happiness.
Although feeling grateful may lead to happiness, for most people gratitude has to be learned. Melanie Klein, an early object relations theorist, wrote a book called Envy and Gratitude, explaining that in the normal course of development people learn to feel grateful, but they don’t start out that way. In fact, babies can envy all the goodies that their strong and powerful parents have.
It may take a lifetime, but as we grow, we learn to feel thankful for what our parents and others have shared with us. This is true even if those parents weren’t particularly generous, kind, or good. The wise can value half a loaf of bread rather than wishing for or resenting not having a whole loaf. Part of growing up is learning to appreciate what we do have—the good things around us, the simple stuff, like the air we breathe or the sparkling red leaves of maple trees in autumn. Gifts surround us. Can we accept them?
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When we live in the spirit of gratitude, there will be much happiness in our life. The one who is grateful is the one who has much happiness, while the one who is ungrateful will not be able to have happiness.”
Sometimes gratitude hurts; it can be easier to give than to receive. Accepting a gift might make us feel guilty (it’s too much) or deprived (it’s not enough), as in, “I never get what I want.” If we often feel deprived, accepting a gift can makes us feel needy and greedy. Maybe we feel that we never got enough when we were little, and what we get now is too little, too late.
I might think, “No one can make up for what I didn’t get. I never got what I rightfully deserved!” That may be true, but staying resentful, painfully empty, closes the world; when the world is shut, I can’t give with an open hand or receive with an open heart.
Problems and resentments roll out while our brains are on auto play. Stop! Consciously count, remember the world’s blessings. Practice.
Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, has done research on gratitude for over 10 years. He finds that writing in gratitude journals can increase happiness levels by 25%. My personal practice is to find three things to feel grateful about before going to sleep; when I wake up, I smile, stretch, and listen to the birds sing.
So, wake up and feel grateful. Breathe the bountiful air. Feel the clean sheets and warm blankets on your bed. Smile at yourself when you look in the mirror. Smile at your loved ones and at the ones you don’t love, too; maybe they feel unlovable, and are in special need of your smiles.
Generosity means you can receive as well as give. You can appreciate your gifts—and you can share your spark with others. That’s what object relations is about: sharing that flame.
Grateful feelings are celebrated in the winter festivals of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. These all involve giving and getting gifts; can we feel generous and grateful, giving and receiving with open hands?
The spark ignites when we know we’re happy enough. Gratitude brings rainbows. Pass it on.
- Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.
- Klein, Melanie. (1975). Envy and Gratitude. NY: Simon and Shuster.
- Thich Nhat Hanh(2007). Two Treasures: Buddhist Teachings on Awakening & True Happiness. Berkley, California: Parallax Press.
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