Everybody wants to be happy. It seems to somehow be wired into our DNA. We subconsciously look for it in each moment of our day, in so many different places: from the people we love, to the places we go, from the things we buy, to the food we eat, we look for it in the plans we make for the future, and in our treasured memories of the past. It is ingrained into the fibres of all we do. And because of our constant desire be happy: to pursue a happy life, to feel happy inside, to wake up happy – we run after many things to achieve our desire…
But it often feels like pursuing happiness is like chasing a carrot on a string – it seems to be just ahead, just in front, if we keep going, if we do this, or buy that, go here or travel there, if we find a spouse, if we have children, if we get that job we really want, if we finally retire. The elusive happiness seems to be just around the next corner.
In one of his poems, Robert Browning’s character reflects, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – it is human nature to keep on reaching out for more than we have.
And of course we are sometimes very happy, life is filled with precious moments, happy days and good times… sometimes. But it is also filled with heartaches and pain, sadness and loss. So our pursuit of happiness is a plight often puckered with holes, and joy leaks out, like water through a colander. We are left empty, looking at the dregs that remain.
How can we patch the holes and retain the joy? How can we enrich our lives? How can we be happy?
In our church in Ghana our pastor has been speaking on a topic ‘Be Rich’ which has been such an interesting series. A lot of people are very interested in how to be wealthy, live in a better house, drive a better car, go on better holidays, enjoy more shopping. But this topic was not about how to achieve any of those things. It was about how to be rich right here in today: in the life you already have.
Ben Stein, when asked how to get rich said this: “So I cannot tell you anything that, in a few minutes, will tell you how to be rich. But I can tell you how to feel rich, which is far better, let me tell you firsthand, than being rich. Be grateful.”
Feel rich in life by being grateful? It sounds a bit simple, right? Maybe a bit too simple… a bit ‘Polyanna’, or ‘rose tinted glasses’ syndrome….
But gratitude runs deeper than we think.
Over the past few days I have been listening to a lecture by scientist/philosopher Robert Emmons, who has written the book named ‘Thanks!’, and has done 15 years worth of research into the practice of gratitude. He argues that gratitide is much more than merely having a positive attitude, and that it is definitely not living in denial of reality, but rather that it is powerful, able to affect and transform us at our core.
Emmons makes three points, which capture the fundamental nature of gratitude and why it is so powerful. He names each of these three points and calls them ‘stones’. Each stone represents one of the aspects of gratitude.
He firstly notes that every moment of life has an opportunity for gratitude, even if we don’t see it at the time, we might see it in hindsight, but there is always something to be grateful for. Even in bad situations, there are nuggets of goodness. He calls it delight in adversity or joy amidst the pain. It is the practice of finding diamonds in the rough, in looking for the good in every situation. And this is why he names the first stone: Joy.
Now to fully experience this joy that comes with looking for things to be grateful for we must go a little deeper. We need to experience it. And to experience it we must receive it, as the gift that it is: the smile from a stranger, the embrace of a friend, the sunrise and sunset, the beauty of a rose. All gifts. After all, we didn’t work for them, or deserve them, but they are given to us never-the-less. We must receive it, like a Christmas gift. We are not always all that good at receiving gifts, especially if we know we haven’t ‘earned’ it. But it is a necessary part of gratitude: to take in the good. To receive it. Emmons calls this stone Grace: to receive a gift we haven’t worked for or deserved.
And the third aspect of the fullness of gratitude is to transform our gratitude into giving back. The gratitude becomes thanksgiving. Once we have recognised the goodness in our lives, opening our hands and our hearts to receive it, we need to (and begin to naturally want to) give back the good to others. Research has shown that grateful people are more likely to be more giving and generous. This third stone is called love.
Research has also shown that grateful people are much happier, more contented people. In addition, thankfulness reduces fear and anxiety! But gratitude is a choice: thankfulness creates joy not visa versa. It is the language of the revolutionary, as Ann Voskamp puts it. She states that you are only as happy as you are thankful. The measure is your choice.
And so this is how we begin to patch up those holes that leak out joy. It is in looking around us, right here, right now, recognising the goodness in each moment, receiving it as a gift, and by giving thanks… finding joy, receiving grace and showing love… gratitude… that we will begin to realise just how rich we are.