The Gratitude Myth: Affirm goodness but forget the Source?
The missing link in gratitude self-help guides
Gratitude is a buzzword in self-help courses, psychology books, corporate wellbeing programs and mental health YouTube videos. Yet, when it comes to gratitude there is often a missing link on the topic.
We are told to list what we are grateful for a lot more than we are asked to reflect on who or what gives the gifts which make it to our gratitude list.
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Why gratitude is good
Leading scientific expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons, lists physical, psychological and social benefits to gratitude:
Stronger immune systems
Less bothered by aches and pains
Lower blood pressure
Exercise more and take better care of health
Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
Higher levels of positive emotions
More alert, alive, and awake
More joy and pleasure
More optimism and happiness
More helpful, generous, and compassionate
Feel less lonely and isolated.
Reduced fear and the mental health toothbrush
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins explains, “When we have an attitude of gratitude we see life as it is; an unbelievable gift. There is no room for fear in a grateful heart.”
Author of the The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss, encourages the use of a “five minute journal” much like a mental health toothbrush which involves practising gratitude at the beginning and end of each day.
Attract good things?
Rhonda Byrne, famous author of The Secret expresses a popular New Age view, “Be grateful for what you have now. As you begin to think about all the things in your life you are grateful for, you will be amazed at the never ending thoughts that come back to you of more things to be grateful for. You have to make a start, and then the law of attraction will receive those grateful thoughts and give you more just like them.”
We refute this view in the below:
What and who are we grateful to?
Psychologist Robert Emmons, writing in the Greater Good Magazine, reminds us that the definition of gratitude has two components:
It involves an affirmation of goodness
Figuring out where that goodness comes from
The second point is often missed in self-help guides which push gratitude with no real indication of to whom or what you should be grateful.
Outside of and beyond us
Emmons adds that gratitude involves acknowledging something good “didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride.” This means gratitude is effectively about looking outside of and beyond ourselves.
Emmons continues, “True gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Who are you thankful to?
The question then arises if gratitude is truly about being thankful and looking beyond ourselves, who are we thankful to?
Blind chance, impersonal spiritual energy, or God?
Some are grateful to the universe or some sort of spiritual energy, others are “grateful” for blind chance “designing” favourable outcomes in their lives, others are thankful to their ancestors while others are thankful to God.
Layers of gratitude
Of course, gratitude can contain many layers, a human who some would argue has been created by God could be generous towards you meaning you can be grateful for both the human’s and God’s goodness.
However, the purpose of this article is to look at what should be the ultimate source of our gratitude as a whole.
Gratitude under atheism
From an atheistic standpoint, it would make absolutely no sense to be grateful to the universe in the sense that it is some sort of spiritual energy for under a materialistic/ naturalistic worldview there is nothing except the physical world.
It makes no sense to speak of the universe as a spiritual energy if no such thing exists. It also makes no sense to thank chance (does chance flip a coin or reflect the probability of heads or tails when a coin has been flipped?).
The source of the universe was a purposeless accident under atheism.
Why are atheists grateful for sunsets?
Psychology Today author Alfie Kohn perceptively recognises this issue. As Kohn articulates, “Conversely, if you don’t believe sunsets were deliberately created for their beauty, it would make no sense to respond with gratitude. Pleasure, sure. But not gratitude. Which leaves us to ponder why so many secular folks — particularly those who like to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and enthuse at length about meditation and mindfulness — have accepted a fundamentally religious idea like living a life of gratitude.”
Spiritual but not religious?
However, I am also aware most spiritual people would not consider themselves atheists.
Instead, they believe the universe is primarily a spiritual reality and the physical world is not all there is. Byrne echoes this view in The Secret, “The truth is that the universe has been answering you all of your life, but you cannot receive the answers unless you are awake.”
Under this view, the universe should be the object of your gratitude for it provides everything you have.
Limits of an impersonal spiritual force
Nevertheless, there are some serious issues and dangers with this view.
First, the universe as spoken of by Byrne is primarily spiritual energy, not a personal being. This is further illustrated by the fact Byrne likes to speak of energy vibrations to and from the universe.
It makes no sense to be grateful to an impersonal force. An impersonal force has no deliberate intent, no gifts to purposefully give and no personal mind to react to anything you send it.
How could an impersonal force bring about personal human beings with deliberate intent and will who are obsessed with purpose? It makes no sense.
You don’t thank energy or forces
Do you thank sunlight for coming through the window or heat for warming up your cold hands? Do you thank the steam for cooking your dumplings or the wind for opening the door for you? Or do you thank 5G signals for playing you a video or microwave frequencies for warming up your food?
You don’t thank laws
Second, if we speak of energy in the scientific sense it simply follows scientific laws, so why aren’t we thankful to laws instead? Nevertheless, even if thankful to laws we still come to the issue of laws of nature being impersonal. You don’t thank gravity for dropping an apple from a tree for you to eat.
Universe had a beginning
Third, we know from modern cosmology that the universe had a beginning, we also know that everything which has a beginning has a cause. You might say we aren’t grateful to the universe but for it existing.
The question then arises, where did the universe come from? You are grateful for it coming from whom or what? It clearly didn’t cause itself or exist forever so how did it spring into being? If it sprang into being from another force why is the universe itself the ultimate source of your gratitude?
Why does anything exist at all?
As psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains in The Matter With Things, “The answer to this question is of an altogether different order, and must lie on a plane different from, and deeper than, everything else. The question cannot be answered in terms of a physical entity or process, because that already presupposes what we are questioning – why there are physical entities and processes. The proper object of this question is that which underwrites, timelessly and eternally, whatever is: in other words, the ground of Being.”
Given the “Big Bang” or similar event, marked the beginning of time and space as we know it, the universe's cause must be independent of time and space as we know it.
Personal or impersonal cause?
We must then ask if this cause is a personal cause (with an intention) or an impersonal cause. It makes no sense for a scientific law to bring about the universe as time and space began to exist at this point.
Our other options are then abstract objects (like the number 7) that do not exist in causal relationships or a personal Creator.
In the words of William Lane Craig, “we may therefore infer that a personal Creator of the universe exists, who is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful.” This, dare I say, brings us very close to the Christian definition of God.
Thus, it would make a lot more sense to be grateful to a personal cause, such as God Himself. As Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Did you decide how, when or where your life would start?
Did you decide where you were born? Did you decide to have a finely tuned eye, brain, or heart that exists on a planet finely tuned for life at just the right distance from the sun and rotating at just the right speed?
Did you choose your parents or the hospital of your birth? Did you decide to grow up in a country where you weren’t starved to death or killed in war during your toddler years?
Looking beyond yourself
When considering gratitude I encourage you to look beyond yourself but not beyond yourself to impersonal forces such as chance (obviously it’s an accident that you even remember to thank chance!) or a universe that has no mind or intent but to God.
What makes Christianity unique?
When it comes to gifts and gratitude, Christianity has a very different stance to all major worldviews.
The great gift of salvation does not come from your own doing, from good vibrations sent to and from the universe, or from chance.
Salvation is a gift and from gifts comes a sound basis for gratitude as you look outside of and beyond yourself.
Christ offered himself for you. He offers a new identity in him to you as a gift, not because of any goodness in you.
The true response to this gift of love and grace is a response of gratitude. That of a changed heart (John 14:15) and frequent rejoicing (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” — James 1:17
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