“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Positivity Psychology and Confrontations With the Unconscious
I admit that positive psychology and I are not always on ‘speaking terms’ in the family of psychotherapy. The soul often burdens the therapeutic notion that thinking positive or feeling happy is our measure of health. Depth psychologically speaking, the pull into our deeper, heavier and conflict-ridden spaces is an invitation to meaning, passion, and drive. By contrast, the spirit of positivity aims at ascension, relying on the angelic-liberation motif. We may avoid altogether the gripping and necessary confrontations with the unconscious.
A Spirit of Gratitude
Like the estranged sibling or the conflict-avoidant mother, positive psychology dismisses some of my deeper values. It often leaves the table without consideration or sensitivity to the many emotions present in the family unit. On the one hand, positivity can be described as contagious. It welcomes a spirit of gratitude and lifts us from the humdrum of mediocrity into the realms on high. Who doesn’t benefit from the gift of appreciation and light? On the other, who among us hasn’t felt the obvious and shallow reframe amongst clients’ family and friends where otherwise significant and weighty realities starve behind forced smiles and empty hugs?
Masking the Palpable Tension
Perhaps the issue is not with gratitude in the archetypal sense with a depth of discovery and embodied resonance. Rather, it’s when gratitude masks the palpable tension. I’ve always considered myself a realist in the sense that small talk dries me out. I think the villain in my narrative is more the shallow optimist than the heartfelt seeker of appreciation. One replaces reality with superficiality while the other draws upon the nourishment that thankfulness provides us all.
Gratitude and the Perspective of Advancement
Emerson reminds us that gratitude can become habitual. He heralds the role of gratitude in the perspective of advancement. I say we fall on a broad spectrum in regard to our gratitude. Sometimes we hang on for dear life and others attract the perspectives of a positive outlook. It can sometimes be difficult to search out what we are grateful for, especially for those estranged from family around the holidays. I found it particularly interesting in my research on gratitude this week that cross-culturally holidays celebrating thanks and gratitude can be found spanning recorded history. It would seem an innate virtue this cultivation of gratitude, both for the inner life and the interpersonal/ inter-communal life.
The Two Stages of Gratitude
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude involves two stages (2003):
- First comes the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make it worth living and rich in texture. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, both by its presence and by the effort the giver put into choosing it.
- Second, gratitude is recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. One can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world, but not to oneself. At this stage, we recognize the goodness in our lives and who to thank for it, ie., who made sacrifices so that we could be happy?
The two stages of gratitude comprise the recognition of the goodness in our lives, and then how this goodness came to us externally lies. By this process, we recognize the gifts of everything that makes our lives—and ourselves—better.
The Cultivation of Perspective and Connection
As Einstein once offered, we have only one decision in life: whether we live in a kind or unkind universe. I say gratitude offers both a catharsis and an invitation to reciprocity. Gratitude shows us the kind of universe we want to live in. In recognition of that which we have received, we learn to open ourselves to life. When our mental health is on the line, we may resist any receptivity. Feelings are guarded against any penetration from others or circumstances as a way of survival. I see gratitude as the rightful opening of oneself. To feel appreciative rather than fearful can cultivate the kinds of intimacy and hopefulness that we need most. When gratitude is considered an embodied emotion, one learns, as Emerson described the “cultivation” of perspective and connection.
This week we take a simple look at the cultivation of gratitude and the benefits of embodied receptivity and appreciation. Positive psychology is a valued member of the family of intervention and we can take a look at the historical virtue of thanks as a reminder of the potent power of deep receiving and deep meaningful advancement.