Everybody agrees that gratitude is essential for happiness. Religions across the globe and throughout history, as well as modern psychologists and neuroscientists, acknowledge that if you want to be happy, you must be grateful. And we have so much to be grateful for. We enjoy a material prosperity unknown to the vast majority of humankind.
So why aren’t we more grateful?
In short, commercials and advertisements.
It’s interesting that when most people are asked if they think advertising affects their decisions, they will say that it doesn’t. Yet, globally, corporations and companies spend somewhere in the ballpark of half a trillion dollars a year on advertising. People do not spend a half a trillion dollars on something that doesn’t work. In fact, the fact that most people would say advertising doesn’t effect their decisions is itself proof of how powerful advertising is. Advertising is most successful when it guides and shapes attitudes and decisions at a subconscious level. That is why most commercials spend very little time talking about the actual product. They are not trying to rationally engage the prefrontal cortex. They are trying to emotionally engage more primal limbic parts of the brain that want security, pleasure, etc.
We live and move and have our being in a cultural environment that does everything it can to suppress contentment and gratitude for what we have. Everything around us is pulling us to locate happiness in the acquisition of this or that product. That means we will never stumble our way into true happiness. We have to be intentional about cultivating gratitude. As simple and childlike as it sounds, taking time to “count our blessings” on a regular basis, daily even, is probably one of the most important indicators of our psychological well-being. This is why things like “gratitude journals” are increasingly becoming a part of various kinds of therapy for depression. It is also why biblical writers said things like this:
Give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
It’s worth noting that the apostle Paul does not tell us to give thanks for everything, but in everything. Of course stuff happens for which gratitude is far from an appropriate response. Some things obviously call for grief, outrage, etc. In all things, however, we have a God who is with us, who breathes peace and new life into our fragile selves.
As we are told in our Holy Communion liturgy, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…”
Always and everywhere.
I’m not there yet. But I am thankful for the grace that is leading me there.
Our Thursday night study this Fall is based on Brian McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. This week’s study focuses on the word “thanks.”