Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

Sweet and Sour: Two Flavors of "Thank You"

Gratitude adds a little sweetness to life--even on those sour days.

It’s good to be grateful. Over the past decade, research studies have begun to reveal some personal benefits of gratitude. From a practical standpoint, the findings so far seem pretty impressive: Gratitude has been linked with more energy, better sleep, higher levels of well-being, greater progress toward personal goals, more helpfulness toward others, and better physical health. Given the emotional, physical, and relational boost that gratitude can bring, it’s well worth it to learn how to cultivate a grateful attitude. (For a practical self-help guide to gratitude that is grounded in empirical research, see Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, by Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis.)

As I discussed in an earlier entry, I almost always have a song running through my head. So for me, an effective way to improve my mood is to listen to a song with a positive melody and message. Two of my favorite songs focus on gratitude. One of them is Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous.” (Click here for a version that shows the lyrics on the webpage.) The second is Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You.” (Click here for a version with lyrics.) Although both songs make me feel good, they have distinct flavors. If you have time, check out the links and see whether either of these songs resonate with you today. 

Sometimes the feeling of gratitude—and the experiences leading up to it—will be cheerful and bright, with a taste that’s sweet and simple. In last month’s entry, The Quiet Power of Encouragement, I had the pleasure of sharing a straightforward experience of gratitude. It felt easy and natural to be grateful to my surfing instructor. After all, she was encouraging, patient, and kind, and she helped me when I clearly needed help. In a situation like that, it doesn’t take much effort to generate grateful feelings; they rise up naturally in response to the kindness we receive. The sunny sense of joy that accompanies such gratitude experiences makes it easy to say, “Thank you.” For me, this is the chord struck by Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous.”

Yet gratitude isn’t always so easy to access, especially when we face difficult life experiences. It might be some traumatic event that changes a person’s life, like a major loss, a serious illness, or a natural disaster. But it could also be one of those daily hassles: Your computer crashes. That nagging pain in your tooth gets worse. Your child comes down with a nasty case of the flu. For most of us, the sweet taste of gratitude can be hard to find in these sour situations.

Nonetheless, even amidst the tangle of negative emotions we may struggle through in tough times, we may still find signs pointing toward the importance of gratitude. As described above, research has begun to document many benefits of a grateful outlook. Many religious and spiritual writings promote thankfulness as well. For example, the Bible reminds readers that “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord,” (Psalm 92:1, KJV), and Christians are exhorted to “give thanks in all circumstances.” (I Thessalonians 5:18, ESV) The Buddha seems to agree: “You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy.” And the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi follows suit: “Thankfulness brings you to the place where the Beloved lives.”

These writings remind us that gratitude isn’t simply a positive emotional state; it’s also a virtue. In contrast to happy moods that come and go, virtues often yield their payoffs over the long haul. Here's the challenging part: In most cases, virtuous mindsets and behaviors don’t just spring up naturally, in response to pleasant events. Instead, they have to be cultivated, often through times of suffering and trial. Intense personal struggles can present a tough test of our character: Can we find reasons to be thankful even when facing circumstances that seem unbearably difficult? 

In some cases, then, working toward a grateful attitude can entail some real sacrifice. When pain is intense, gratitude may not be a feeling that overtakes us; instead, it’s something that we offer up.

When we’re facing intense stress or hurt, we may have to dig pretty deep to find anything positive. And even if we can stir in the sweetness of a few grateful thoughts, the overall experience may still carry an inescapable taste of the sour—a melancholy overtone. Sometimes, it seems, the best taste that we can reach is bittersweet. But in terms of our overall well-being, isn't this a better outcome than a straight taste of bitterness?

For me, this moody but reflective side of gratitude is captured in Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You.” Here, even feelings such as frailty and disillusionment can ultimately be seen as gifts. If we can learn to view painful experiences and emotions through the lens of gratitude, they start to reveal their secret beauty. 

By committing ourselves to look for the little glimmers of radiance in daily life, we can find a profound sense of hope. Even when the shadows start to close in, there’s still that part of us that can choose to reach toward the light. We can take a moment to savor the kaleidoscope of life’s colors--colors that often show themselves most vividly against a dark backdrop.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

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