This is the third installment of a 13-part series exploring the Atheopagan Principles, as described in my essay “How I Became an Atheopagan”. To read the whole series, click the tag “Atheopagan Principles” in the tag cloud at right.
Principle 3 of Atheopaganism is, I am grateful. But constraints of language make even this seemingly simple concept obscure and confusing. Grateful for what? When? All the time? How is that possible?
This is because “grateful” is an adjective, and as such appears to describe a quality to characterize a person: Bob is red-haired, blue-eyed, right-handed, and grateful. Right?
The way the English language addresses gratitude implies that it is something you either are or aren’t, like being tone deaf or French or coffee-colored. But that isn’t correct.
Gratitude is something you do. If it weren’t bad English, Principle 3 would be, “I DO gratitude”.
Gratitude is a way of filtering and interpreting information about the world, about our lives, and about humanity in general. It is a learned skill, and tacks sharply against the predominant themes we are presented in our day-to-day living: news channels that tell us all the awful things going on, advertising that tells us how inadequate our lives are because we don’t own This Product, stark inequalities in our society which breed envy and resentment, the very real threats to the planet itself.
Some of those things are real grounds for negative feelings. I’m not suggesting they are not.
But a deliberate ongoing effort to notice the many reasons we all have for gratitude is a core path to a happier life. It is a way to keep in context those things we are unhappy about, by filling in all the reasons we do have to be happy: a playing child we may see on our way to work, a pretty garden, a sunset, an unexpected call from a friend. A home, food, friends, love. Air to breathe. The flavor of wine, chocolate, coffee, a strawberry. The scent of roses and jasmine.
These things are sewn liberally into our lives, and too often we simply pass them by with little acknowledgement. We allow our lives to be drained of color and kindness by ignoring them when they appear.
There is solid scientific evidence of the benefits of regular gratitude practice, which should come as no surprise. If paying attention to those events and interactions in life that bring pleasure, we become more happy. And when we are happy, we are easier to get along with, more likely to feel motivation to act rather than dispirited apathy, and we enjoy our lives more.
It’s not rocket science. But it’s also not at all easy if you’re not in the habit.
As I said, gratitude is a learned skill, and in our cynical society, it’s hard work to develop the habit of gratitude. Like a muscle, it must be exercised. Gratitude is a practice. Many examples of gratitude practices can be found online–here are some.
Some people have a “gratitude jar”, into which they place a note every day listing the things they are grateful for. At year’s end, they read them—perhaps burn them in the Yule fire with wishes for more such pleasures in the coming year—and then start over.
Others have a nightly gratitude practice, speaking the things they were grateful for that day either to themselves or with a partner.
But the most important element of gratitude is its contribution to our internal dialogue. When the habit of gratitude is ingrained, the mind stops feeling hokey or uncomfortable about gratitude, and instead keeps drifting back to the reasons we have to be happy, rather than the reasons we have to be angry or resentful or depressed.
The third Atheopagan Principle is gratitude because it is good for us. It is good for ourselves, our relationships, our society and our world.
If you don’t feel you experience enough gratitude now, there may not be any more important element of self-work you can tackle. Start today.