I’ve been thinking about gratitude, about noticing and appreciating the good things in life. I’ve been reading some of the psychology literature about it. As a character strength, it is one of the most strongly correlated with well-being. As a feeling, it is one of the positive feelings that leads to “broaden and build” behavior — instead of “fight or flight.”
I’ll bet everybody knows what fight or flight involves – heightened physical stress and narrowed focus that prepares the body to respond to danger and survive. Negative emotions are more salient than positive ones – Marty Seligman says that we have Pleistocene bodies that no longer match the physical realities of our lives since we are physically more ready to respond to danger than we are to good things that occur.
Broaden and build is Barbara Fredrickson’s theory about effect on us of positive emotions – joy, gratitude, contentment, awe, interest, affection. Positive emotions broaden our behavioral repertoires — making us more openminded, creative, explorative, giving, and appreciative. They also help us build resilience and social connections. So the emotions are fleeting, but the benefits are durable.
Back to gratitude. A hefty part of gratitude is just noticing things to be grateful for. I thought about this earlier today when I was steaming milk for coffee. I have an ancient machine that has given me great service for a long time. One day the knob to release steam into the milk just fell off. For months, I’d twist the underlying rod by hand, often burning my fingers. Then one day my brother came in and replaced the mechanism, providing me a removable handle to turn — removable because it is metal and gets hot itself if left on during the steaming.
Now I think of him with gratitude almost every time I steam milk — which is nearly every day. I remember him tinkering with it afterwards to make it work just right. I see the concentration on his face. He had to do a little invention to fix it with parts from the local hardware store.
Some objects carry a special importance to us because they bring people back into our minds. I remember one grandmother when I lay the table for Thanksgiving and Christmas since I’m using her silver. I remember the friends who gave us stacking trays for our wedding because we use the trays whenever we want to eat on our screen porch. I remember my other grandmother perhaps less frequently because the lace tablecloths and placemats that she made are almost too precious to use. She pieced them together out of the bits of lace her Navy sons brought back from all over the world. I think of my siblings collectively when the sun coming through the window creates rainbows on the floor from the curved arc that they gave us
The psychologist Philip Watkins says that an important component of gratitude is an enhanced tendency to remember positive events from one’s life. I’d extend that just a little – it also includes the ability to feel grateful over and over for the same things.