I want to share a painting that hangs on the wall where I do most of my work. When I look up from my desk, this is what I see:
Study the picture for a few minutes. (Okay, give it ten seconds. I know—you’re busy. We all are.)
Now tell me, what happened here? What’s the story?
Whatever yarn you spin will reveal nothing about the painting, but it will suggest a lot about your life, your place in the world, and the impact you’ll have on others.
Friends, is yours a story of destruction and despair, or one of beauty and adventure?
More importantly, how thankful are you for the story you’re living?
Every Wednesday I spend an hour with a group of teens in an addiction recovery program. It’s usually the best (and hardest) hour of my entire week. During one of our recent discussions, one of the young men (we’ll call him “Joe”) offered this pearl: “I’ve started to keep a list of the good things in my life, and when something bad happens or I get really upset, I pull out my list and read it over and over until I start to feel okay again.”
Joe is wise beyond his years.
I have friends who live in six-bedroom, three-bath homes and drive one of their four cars to their six-figure jobs each day, and their lives will never be as successful as the one Joe is building.
“I keep a list of the good things in my life, and when something bad happens or I get really upset, I pull out my list and read it over and over until I start to feel okay again.”
Though he’s a teenager who will spend the holidays locked away from family and friends in an institution filled with humming fluorescent lights and the bitter scent of hospital disinfectant, Joe has learned the undefeated battle cry of a life worth living:
“Be thankful in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NLT).
The Apostle Paul gave us that nearly two thousand years ago, and our failure to comply tells a lot about who we’ve become as a nation and as individuals. We have one official day of Thanksgiving. The other 364 days, we’re pretty much a nation of disgruntled malcontents … and we’re one of the richest, most powerful nations in the world. We have more freedom to laugh, live, and love than just about anyone on the planet, but after being bombarded with so much sensational, manipulative media this past political season, it seems we’ve actually started to revise our own story into a cursed saga of loss and desolation.
Woe is me.
“Be thankful in all circumstances.”
That’s from a guy who suffered assaults, shipwrecks, starvation, ridicule, and imprisonment. Meanwhile my buddy in the huge home with the six-figure income has the audacity to tell me how bad things are for him in America.
What Paul knew then is the same thing that young Joe is learning now: an attitude of gratitude has the power to change everything in our world.
When Paul urges us to “be thankful in all circumstances,” he’s not telling us to suck it up and pretend bad things don’t happen. He’s giving us the key to a successful life.
There are several psychological studies on how gratitude can enhance and even transform your life (I’ll trust your ability to visit a library or Google to find examples). In a nutshell, people who practice the art of thanksgiving are healthier, experience more positive life-events, handle adversity more effectively, and enjoy stronger relationships with others. To put it another way, grateful people are simply more successful. What research shows, however, is that achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to gratitude; rather, the habits of gratitude can actually cultivate success. As Erika Anderson writes, people who are thankful “draw successes into their lives.”
Think of gratitude as a gravitational force that has the power to pull a multitude of good things into your world.
Why wouldn’t you want that?
Mostly because it will require you to change your mind, your heart, and everything you think you know about yourself. And that will take some effort on your part.
Counselors such as Dr. Dan Allender employ narrative therapy in helping people understand the story of their own lives. You see, we think about our lives in terms of story—a linear progression of characters and events that we’ve encountered along this crazy journey. How we view that story has a tremendous impact on what our lives will become. However, there’s a catch: the story of your life is actually less about what’s happened to you and more about your understanding of those events. Most of your “memories” are actually just like movies: fictional accounts based on “actual events.”
But what does that have to do with gratitude? Bear with me.
Go back to my painting of the boat. Did your mind conjure up a tale about a storm, fifteen-foot waves, and a rescue boat smashed upon the rocks with the captain lost at sea; or did you envision a sun-kissed day at the beach, filled with laughter and adventure, the fresh smell of sea-salt in the air, and the celebration of a discovered treasure?
Your brain functions as your personal story teller as it interprets your world. However, you can train your mind to tell the story you want to live. In other words, you have the ability to alter the narrative of your past, and that’s often what you must do in order to change what happens next in your story.
“Our perceptual systems aren’t built to notice absolutely everything in our environment,” writes Kimberley Wade, noted memory expert. “We take in information through all our senses but there are gaps. So when we remember an event, what our memory ultimately does is fills in those gaps by thinking about what we know about the world.”
To put it bluntly, the life you live is shaped by your memories, and your memories are largely semi-fictional narratives that are manipulated by your already-present attitudes, biases, and thought patterns. For better or worse, the story of your life becomes a vicious mental cycle; but those habits can be changed.
“Be thankful in all circumstances.”
Why? Because gratitude has the power to actually change your memories for the better. And if you can alter what you know about your past, your whole world will also be positioned for change. Amit Amin offers this in his article, The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life:
Experiencing gratitude in the present makes us more likely to remember positive memories, and actually transforms some of our neutral or even negative memories into positive ones. In one study, putting people into a grateful mood helped them find closure of upsetting open memories. During these experiences, participants were more likely to recall positive aspects of the memory than usual, and some of the negative and neutral aspects were transformed into positives.
The Apostle Paul wasn’t suggesting that you should become one of those nauseating Pollyanna Christians who never knows loss, failure, darkness, and depression. Quite the contrary. His words have a bigger purpose. He was urging us to embrace an attitude of thanksgiving because he knew something two millennia ago that psychologists are just now starting to figure out: unleashed gratitude will run amok through your soul and could potentially destroy everything in your past, your present, and the entire trajectory of your future … all for the better.
“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”
Gratitude can completely alter the story of your life.
Your mind is a creature of habit. As I wrote in an earlier piece, negativity and toxic thoughts are often addictive and self-fulfilling in nature. If that’s what you have to work with, that’s what your mind uses to fill in all those mental “gaps” that Wade discusses. Likewise, a well-trained grateful heart (and all that comes with it) can cultivate crops of success throughout your life. “Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle,” writes Alex Korb, Ph.D. Once that cycle is set in motion, your brain will naturally start to provide you with things to be grateful for.
I once worked for a principal who would say, “There’s a fine line between a rut and a groove.”
Practicing gratitude can get you out of a rut and into a groove. But the key word is practice. As Dr. Christian Jarrett suggests, we should think of gratitude as a “muscle that can be exercised and strengthened.” Or as one of my college professors told me decades ago, “When it feels like you’re living in a desert, survival and success mostly depend on watering the green spots.”
If you want a better life, start watering the green spots.
While there are a number of ways to cultivate gratitude, I’m going to suggest you try this:
For the next month, keep a Gratitude Journal. Take just five minutes each day and write about something (a person, place, event—whatever) that you’re thankful for, either past or present. Just pick one thing each day and explore the goodness that it has brought into your life-story. Pay particular attention to the seemingly small things your mind will start to offer up (those trivial things can leave a bigger mark than we realize). Be deliberate and let yourself delight in those moments of gratitude; allow yourself the time and space to hang out there for a bit. Maybe even take it a step further and do this activity as a group, sharing your gratitude journals with each other (I think you’ll find the positive effects will be magnified in many ways; you’ll soon find your group members swimming in a sea of success stories).
Do that for thirty days and I promise you’ll begin to notice some incredible changes as the story of your life begins to be retold.
Right now, I think that’s what many of us need.
Friends, we don’t need a new president to make America great again.
We need to make America GRATEFUL again.
(By the way, please share this article. I’ll be incredibly grateful.)