Glancing at headlines in the news yesterday, one in particular caught my eye. It seems today, September 21st, is World Gratitude Day.
The seed of an idea planted in 1965 has grown and taken on a life of its own over the past five decades.
It seemed rather fortuitous that the concept of gratitude was raised since I was in the middle of writing on the benefits of positive psychology (also referred to as learned optimism).
The premise of positive psychology is simple: go beyond traditional forms of psychology which focus on alleviating suffering and treating mental illness to take a more proactive approach to improve the human condition.
Or, as I like to think of it, an emphasis on prevention (beefing up the positive) rather than or in addition to treatment (diminishing the negative).
Positive psychology seeks to enhance daily life and help build thriving individuals, families and communities through scientific understanding of and effective interventions to encourage well-being.
Personal growth and flourishing through affirmative thoughts and actions. Thriving rather than simply surviving.
Now before you start thinking that positive psychology is simply a bunch of new-age psycho-babble about hugs and kisses and rainbows and cuddly kittens, bear with me.
Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of Martin Selgiman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychology has come to play an important role in maintaining our emotional health. It’s an evidence-based discipline with significant research to back it up; it’s centered on positive emotions, traits and institutions.
To practice gratitude is to make the effort not only to recognize and be thankful for positive aspects of our lives but also appreciate their presence. It’s a method to help us develop, project and reinforce an optimistic view of current and future events and an upbeat presentation. Gratitude is only one of many such methods, but a powerful one nonetheless.
Positive psychology in general, and gratitude in particular, both contribute to our personal reserves of emotional resilience.
Emotional resilience is the psychological ability to weather whatever life throws at us – all the negative stuff, the tough challenges, even the worst we can imagine – while maintaining or eventually working our way back to a sense of feeling good about ourselves.
I happened to be looking at the benefits of positivity to an individual: in other words, why you and I reap the rewards of practicing gratitude and related conventions. Yet Seligman and other positive psychologists believe you can extrapolate the benefits beyond the individual to the family unit and the broader community.
So why not the world?
It certainly isn’t easy.
Expressing appreciation for the good that exists on a global level is challenging on the best of days when there is so much conflict and strife, so many in need. It has become even more difficult in recent days when the clash of cultures in terms of individual rights and religious convictions have turned threatening and violent.
A cyber friend of mine who is Muslim wondered whether the effort to differentiate between moderates and radicals had simply become ‘Muslim white noise’ to non-Muslims.*
I’ve been pondering how you convince others that people speaking, writing and filming foolish and offensive things does not equate to agreement by those who lament the insulting nature of the discourse but staunchly support their right to spew it, an abstract thought to someone not raised in a society in which speech is an inalienable cornerstone of individual and collective freedoms.
If you work feeding the hungry, housing those without shelter, teaching the uneducated, reuniting the disposed, helping those without a voice, it can get pretty grueling dealing with the emotional fallout day after day.
And that is precisely why we need a day dedicated to gratitude on an international scale.
If as individual voices, groups and governments we’re going to keep trying to deal with all of the $h!t that is flying around without throwing up our hands in despair, if we’re to make headway in improving the human condition, if we’re to shift the dialogue from anger to engagement, we need emotional resilience.
Collective emotional resilience on a grand scale.
Have a look at the words of Edna Lemle as she recognized the accomplishments of Sri Chinmoy, head of the UN Meditation Group and recognized founder of World Gratitude Day at a UN ceremony back in 1977:
‘WHEREAS, words of praise and positive thoughts generate dynamic harmony, and
WHEREAS, decisions made from a grateful heart are endowed with intrinsic wisdom and engender prosperity; and
WHEREAS, gratitude, the opposite of “taking for granted,” is a positive emotion which generates good will, is a basic emotion which is indigenous to all people, is a peace-engendering feeling;
AND WHEREAS, September 21 is a special day. It is an equinox: one of the two times of the year when the sun passes over the equator and night and day are everywhere of equal length and everyone is equal under the sun;
THEREFORE let us proclaim World Gratitude Day, a holiday for all peoples, a day of meditation for all religions, a day of celebration for all humanity, united by knowledge of simultaneously shared emotion, a day when triumph of the spirit can make a world community.’
World Gratitude Day offers a reminder that sometimes we need to dig deep and recall all that we have to be thankful for on a global level so that we can get up tomorrow and keep working on all that remains to be done.
*Updated 26 Sept 2012 to reflect Aisha Ashraf’s great article ‘The Truth About Islam’ on Expatlogue.com
[Image credit: Idea go, portfolio 809, freedigitalphotos.net]