I have recently learned an important lesson about gratitude, and it has given me a great deal of joy.
But before I tell you about that lesson, I should be honest about something. In the last few years, I have felt a bit skeptical about gratitude.
It seems like recently, everywhere I turn, I have heard people on social media and elsewhere urging people to practice gratitude. It is not too much to say that gratitude is a trend right now.
This is understandable. Practicing or expressing gratitude has documented scientific benefits. For example, it can increase people’s physical and mental health; help them sleep better; and even increase self-esteem.
Fair enough. I believe it.
But even though I know the benefits of gratitude, I still struggle with it. And there are several reasons why.
Concern One: Sometimes it feels like encouragements to express gratitude ignore the suffering in the world.
Of course, there are good things in the world, and it is good to be grateful for those things. However, there is also a lot of suffering in the world. Sometimes when people urge others to practice gratitude, it feels like they encourage people to ignore their painful feelings and “just be happy”. This feels like gratitude shaming.
Gratitude is good, but having compassion for people in their pain (including ourselves) is essential. It is also a necessary precursor to gratitude. When people suffer tragic loss or injustice, they can’t just immediately feel joyful or happy or grateful. They need to mourn, and they need others to mourn with them.
Gratitude is never something you shame people into practicing. It is a joyful practice you invite people into through your own attitude towards life.
(You might like this post about suffering: Suffering and Prayer: A Post for Everyone.)
Concern Two: Sometimes people use gratitude as a type of lucky rabbit’s foot.
Sometimes when people talk about practicing gratitude they suggest, directly or indirectly, that the purpose of expressing gratitude is to get more stuff. For instance, some people suggest that practicing gratitude is the best way to manifest good things in your life.
Now I don’t have a problem with either gratitude or manifesting per se. As I mentioned above, practicing gratitude has demonstrable benefits. And ideas about manifesting often show grown-ups how to dream exciting dreams and pursue them with passion and confidence. That’s awesome.
But it feels inauthentic and, perhaps, somewhat underhanded to me if we only practice gratitude to get stuff. It seems like we are using it to trick God or the Universe, which of course is impossible to do.
Concern Three: People are often vague about gratitude.
It is not enough for me to know that something works. I want to know why something works and what its true nature is.
If I don’t understand this, it’s hard for me to engage in a practice responsibly, thoughtfully, and lovingly. And then it is hard for me to live well.
So, sometimes I feel frustrated that people write frequently about the fact that gratitude practice works, but they write very little on the true nature of gratitude.
This brings me to my recent research in play.
I have been researching and writing about play recently, and it has helped me better understand gratitude. For example, I have been reading a book by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann on the Theology of Play. (And if you do not practice a faith or religion, don’t worry, this post is still for you.)
Moltmann argues that when God created the world, He did so neither out of compulsion nor out of caprice. Rather, God created the world and everything in it from pleasure, happiness, and joy. It pleased God to express His powers in this way, creating the beautiful diversity of things in the world.
Moltmann further argues that our purpose in life is to play with God for eternity in the great playground of existence. (Moltmann calls this playground theatrum gloriae dei—the theatre of God’s glory).
When I read this, I felt exhilarated. We often hear sermons which emphasize God’s power or knowledge. We don’t hear very many sermons emphasizing God at play, inviting us to play as well.
If it is true that one of God’s primary attribute is play and that He invites us to play, this changes our view of life. At least it does for me. It suggests that life is an adventure and that the best attitudes with which to approach it are ones of curiosity, openness, and wonder.
Other scholars write about this idea in other ways, too.
Writer James P. Carse writes about the difference between finite and infinite games. A finite game is a game like sports or politics that we play to win. Infinite games, on the other hand, are games that we play so that we can continue the game forever.
We play infinite games, Carse argues, when we engage in any authentic action for its own sake and desire to continue it for its own sake always. An example of this might be pursuing loving, mutually supportive relationships with others; or pursuing the Divine; or seeking knowledge; or losing ourselves in artistic endeavors.
You can find Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games here.
One can learn much from Carse’s work. But perhaps one of the most important things to learn is that we often settle for playing finite games and forget there are infinite games as well. And while there is nothing wrong per se with finite games, there are much larger, grander, more mysterious and delightful games to play. Namely, there are infinite games to play.
And infinite games lift us out of ourselves and help us reach for something larger, more beautiful, and joyful than our current situation.
I think children understand the art of infinite games very well.
The other evening, we invited some friends and their children over to our house for a barbecue in our back yard. We have a swing set back there. And over the years, I have picked up equipment for play, like balls of various sizes, hula hoops, and a parachute.
As soon as my friends’ children saw these various play possibilities, they jumped in. They spent the next three or four hours running almost non-stop around the yard, jumping, swinging, bouncing balls, and making up new games with the parachute. One little girl turned the parachute into a type of cape, which she wore with great majesty and exuberance.
It was very clear in watching the children play that winning something was the least thing on their mind. Instead, they were seized with the spirit of play—with its attending curiosity, joy, and openness (wonder). Their only concern was to keep on playing their infinite games.
All these experiences have helped me understand gratitude better.
There are moments in my life when I spontaneously feel full of gratitude. This often occurs when I am walking in the forest and am struck by the beauty of my surroundings. Or it happens when I am snuggling and playing with my kitty Jax who is the most loving, playful kitty I have ever met. He is a little miracle to me, and I regularly feel astounded by his personality.
Here’s Jax sleeping. You’re welcome.
Or it happens when my husband and I get caught up in an inside joke, and we can’t stop laughing.
And sometimes it happens, like it did the other night, when I am sitting in my backyard with friends, surrounded by big, old beautiful trees. I am laughing, talking, and enjoying the love of friends and nature, and my heart feels like it will burst with joy.
I can’t help but feel grateful in these moments because I have joined an infinite game. And my gratitude is simultaneously the joy I feel in playing such a game, as well as my desire that it never stop.
And while gratitude seizes me in these moments, I have discovered that I can seize gratitude, too.
I can do this just by slowing down, breathing, and purposely noticing the little miracles that go on around me every day. When I do this, even if I am currently stressed out, I notice my excitement and joy growing. Often this practice turns my entire mood around, and I feel so happy to be alive again.
So, while gratitude can seize me, I can also seize gratitude.
Whatever way it happens, I have decided that gratitude is a practice and an attitude that helps me join infinite games going on around me all the time.
And because of this, I am so grateful for gratitude.
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3 thoughts on “What I Have Learned about Gratitude Recently”
I just went to my bookshelf to find Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, and as it would happen, my copy is missing. So strange, but perhaps someone else needed it more. In her book, she discusses the balance between work and play, and after reading your post, it made me want to reread her book. When I was in the early months of my mental health recovery this past fall, that chapter about play became a goalpost, but I remember how difficult it is to play whole heartedly. Play is different from just taking a break. It’s different from rewarding yourself with an hour or two of television because you finished a project. I still struggle with it, because I often feel too tired to play. I wonder what your thoughts are on that subject? And I guess I’ll have to order another copy of Brown’s book.
This is a great concern, Aaron. I have been too tired in my life sometimes to play very earnestly, too. Lately I have been thinking of play more of as a certain attitude we bring into any activity we do. Play is when we engage in any activity for its own sake with attitudes of joy, openness, and curiosity, and we stay present with ourselves in the process. If we think of play in this way, breathing can be play. Or washing dishes can be play. Or sitting and reading or taking a one minute walk can be play. Perhaps the value of looking at play in this way is that it can make any activity meditative and mindful, which is always good for us. As always, I appreciate your comments.