Active Hope and the Benefits of Gratitude

Last time we looked at the spiral of transformation and how we can become more resilient during a crisis. It may be surprising, but this process always begins with gratitude. In fact, if the news and miscellaneous madness of the world is getting you down, this is one guaranteed way to cheer yourself up. Gratitude could even be a kind of elixir of life.

Do you want to be healthier? Practice gratitude. Want to reduce stress, boost your memory and improve your relationships? Practice gratitude.

Numerous studies and controlled trials have shown that regularly counting your blessings will make you happier and more satisfied with life. Gratitude focuses your mind on the positive and reminds you of the interconnectedness of life. Even if you’re struggling, practising gratitude can make a difference to your mood. Here are some of the benefits of gratitude:

  • makes you feel happier
  • improves your long-term wellbeing
  • makes you healthier by lowering blood pressure, reducing pain, increasing vitality and energy levels
  • makes you more friendly and so improves your relationships
  • boosts your career by improving decision making and increasing productivity
  • helps you to relax and reduces stress levels by making you feel good
  • changes how you remember the past by boosting recall of positive events
  • boosts your self-esteem and makes you more optimistic, less materialistic, more spiritual, and less self-centred
from happierhuman.com

The easiest way to practice gratitude is to take five minutes at the end of each day to note some of the things you’re grateful for. If you write them in a journal you’ll have a record of all the good things in your life that you can revisit whenever you need a gratitude booster. The blessings you list don’t have to be big or significant – they could be as simple as watching a bird flying or the awareness of the breath in your lungs or the feeling of being alive.

You might end up including some of the ‘stuff’ you own on your list. For example, I’m grateful that I have a computer and broadband access so I can write this and connect with you. (hello!) But be careful about focusing too much on material goods – there’s a serious downside.

Consumption and the Law of Dissatisfaction

There’s another body of research that suggests materialism has an inverse relationship to happiness. The more materialistic you are, the less happy you will feel. Materialism in this case doesn’t refer to the philosophical theory but to a value system that sees possessions and your social image as more important than anything else.

You don’t have to be rich to suffer from materialism, or affluenza. But if you value appearance over substance or measure your self-worth through your possessions or level of income, you’re guaranteed to be miserable – whether you realise it (or admit it) or not.

In his article One Rolex Short of Contentment, George Monbiot illustrates this socially destructive mindset with images posted on Rich Kids of Instagram:

“The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled onto her vast bed… a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.”

Poor little rich girl

Those who fall for the blandishments of materialism are more likely to experience lower levels of wellbeing and happiness, as well as more depression, anxiety, headaches, a lack of empathy and destructive relationships. Women who read women’s magazines have lower self-esteem after looking at pictures of stupidly perfect models (photoshopped to within an inch of their lives).

Our habits of consumption are carefully choreographed by the advertising industry which goes out of its way to ensure we hate ourselves just enough to keep buying things that are supposed to make us feel better. Of course, it doesn’t work, so back to the shops we go. The following comes from a marketing website:

“The job of advertisers is to create dissatisfaction in its audience. If people are happy with how they look, they are not going to buy cosmetics or diet books… If people are happy with who they are, where they are in life, and what they got, they just aren’t customer potential – that is, unless you make them unhappy.”

Recently, ex-Facebook president Sean Parker revealed what we kind of knew already: that Facebook was designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology and to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”

Another former Facebook executive said the platform was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” It was deliberately designed to manipulate the way you think in order to extract personal data and then sell advertising to make you buy more stuff. Facebook was never about connecting people. It’s an advertising delivery system and a surveillance tool designed to mess with your head.

Is it any wonder levels of depression are reaching epidemic proportions in the Western world? Our addiction to consumption to fulfil needs we don’t really have isn’t only killing the planet, it’s turning us into miserable narcissists.

Thankfully, there’s a way to short circuit this vicious cycle and restore balance and sanity. Gratitude!

Saying Yes to Life

But what about those times when life really does seem bleak? Gratitude is easy when things are going well. How can you count your blessings if you feel you don’t have any?

I confess I struggle with this. A few years ago I experienced a period of turmoil when my life got turned upside down and shaken until (almost) everything fell away. For a long time I couldn’t see the ‘almost’. My focus was so squarely on what I was losing that I didn’t notice what remained. My mantras became: “Let it go” and “Don’t take it personally.”

Interestingly, this emptying process happened hot on the heels of a surge in practising gratitude and positive thinking. It was as if merely stating my intentions and opening my heart to the future was enough to unleash the furies. This happens sometimes on the spiritual path, usually when you believe things are going well! Old fears resurface to be purged so you can finally leave them behind. (You can read more about what happened here.)

My faith in life and belief in myself collapsed, and I was forced to learn new coping methods. I couldn’t conjure hope to save my life. But at my lowest points I always found a larger perspective waiting to ambush me. At times, I even managed to be grateful for my difficulties because they were showing me things about myself I needed to see. They were pushing me over the edge I had been skirting for a decade.

It’s hard to look darkness in the face. It’s even harder when you know that darkness is inside you. But what it revealed was how much I denied reality. Even when I thought I was being positive and life-affirming, there was still a part of me that I was pushing away. I needed to embrace ALL of me, not just the parts I thought were good or positive or spiritual or acceptable.

I needed to be grateful for my darkness too.

This is hardcore soul work and it takes time. I’m still processing and learning and growing. But for me, gratitude is about accepting reality. To be grateful for anything you must accept it.

So gratitude is about saying YES! to life – all of it, not just the bits you like or the bits that feel good; the whole stinking mess of it too.

Crisis? What crisis?

When we’re faced with the possible destruction of civilisation and the earth on which we depend, it can be hard to find space for gratitude. It can seem too Pollyannaish to focus on the good all the time. But perhaps we can learn to be grateful for the crisis too. There’s nothing like being told your life is about to end to make you appreciate it more. We have spent too long taking the planet and our lives for granted.

Maybe fighting for our lives is the universe’s way of making us feel grateful for them.

Here’s an exercise to try from Active Hope – you don’t have to do this out loud if you’re worried others might think you’re crazy, but then again, it might be a good thing if more people openly expressed their gratitude in this way!

Thanking What Supports You To Live

“Next time you see a tree or plant, take a moment to express thanks. With each breath you take in, experience gratitude for the oxygen that would simply not be there save for the magnificent work plants have done in transforming our atmosphere and making it breathable. As you look at all the greenery, bear in mind also that plants, by absorbing carbon dioxide and reducing the greenhouse effect, have saved our world from becoming dangerously overheated. Without plants and all they do for us, we would not be alive today. Consider how you would like to express your thanks.”

Finally, I must express my gratitude to you, dear reader! Thank you for reading this. Without you, this blog would be nothing but empty pixels and me talking to myself…

Next time we’ll explore the healing power of transforming pain

Read the whole series here

4 thoughts on “Active Hope and the Benefits of Gratitude

  1. Great post. You’re right – practicing gratitude is so important, but definitely not easy, especially when we’re bombarded with advertisements trying to convince us that we need certain things or to look a certain way in order to be happy. Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to reading more of your posts! Wish you the best -speak766

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Numerous studies and controlled trials have shown that regularly counting your blessings will make you happier and more satisfied with life.

    I wouldn’t take them too seriously, especially in combination.

    There’s a few problems with the ones I looked at beyond the fact that so many were headed up by the same guy (Michael McCullough) and were published in obscure journals.

    Firstly the ‘objective’ quantification of subjective experience looks pretty arbitrary to me and even in the studies where the sample size suggests statistically significant results (i.e. a small minority) it’s pretty hard to see the results as clinically significant (e.g. Do you think you’d really notice if you thought ‘life’ was 8% better and your optimism was 5% better unless a psychological test told you so? (Watkins et al, 2003)).

    Another problem is the assumptions built into the measures. For example, McCullough, et al (2001) insist that ‘compliance’ is a pro-social trait. I suspect Hannah Arendt and Stanley Milgram would beg to differ.

    Yet another is the use of surrogate endpoints such as ‘positive attitude’. It assumes that benefits (individual and/or social) will naturally flow from such attitudes and outlooks. However some studies have suggested those with positive attitudes have impaired compassion and self-reflection, less realistic anticipation of the future, exaggerated assumptions of their own agency and increased incidence of bias and prejudice. Other studies into the effects of positive attitude on health outcomes have failed to demonstrate purported benefits when measured against unambiguous and quantifiable results such as disease progression and mortality. Many maxims of positive psychology are essentially circular – i.e. feeling good makes you feel good.

    But the biggest problem is the definition of gratitude, which is inconsistent between studies – where it exists at all. In his 2004 paper McCullough (somewhat belatedly) splits gratitude into three distinct psychological phenomena – an affective trait, a mood and an emotion – all of them subjective. I’d suggest that when we talk about gratitude we most often mean it as an action, activity or verbal habit which may or may not reflect an internal state at all (e.g. “Now show some gratitude to your auntie for that lovely birthday present”). So despite calling it ‘gratitude’ it’s generally unclear what the studies are measuring and unlikely they’re all looking at the same thing.

    Finally I’d suggest that outcomes will probably differ according to the object of gratitude (if there’s an object at all). For example, I’d imagine that habitually feeling gratitude towards people you interact with would be more likely to generate social capital than feeling it towards a theoretical being or principle which you might hold in higher esteem than real people.

    That’s not to say gratitude isn’t a good thing. Just that you probably need to find your own understanding of what it is and draw your own conclusions about its benefits (or otherwise). I suspect looking for external ‘objective’ validation for your own attitudes is a fools errand anyway – especially if it’s based on allegedly ‘scientific’ measures of morality (which most moral philosophers since Hume would agree is nonsensical) as per McCullough et al (2001).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I admit I didn’t look into those studies in detail and you’ve pointed out some obvious flaws. As you say, it’s kind of circular. If you take a positive approach then you’re more likely to experience positive results, but it’s not always the case. There’s obviously more to reality and I wouldn’t even know where to start trying to figure it all out!


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