Practice: Gratitude

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology which focuses on what makes people happy and well. Gratitude has featured prominently in many studies in the field of positive psychology (see chapter Gratitude and the Science of Positive Psychology) since it has been shown that being grateful has many benefits for our emotional well-being.

Many world religions feature gratitude as an essential component to faith. One should express gratitude towards a higher being for all the good things experienced. Anyone who has felt gratitude can appreciate that it has a deep, spiritual quality just like forgiveness. Gratitude washes over us and gives us a glimpse of a higher, happier and more balanced state of being.

As such, practising gratitude is a prudent exercise to undertake in order to become more mindful and enlightened. The following simple practice aids with that:

  1. Take a deep breath in, then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
  2. Think about what a wonder it is that you are alive. Be grateful for the ability to think and feel and just be.

Many gratitude exercises suggested by positive psychology focus on identifying persons or events for which we should be grateful for. I do not doubt that this will help us to foster more virtuous emotions within ourselves and improve our relationships. However, I think that contemplating the very nature of our existence and finding within us gratefulness for the miracle of our being helps us become grateful in a deeper and more meaningful way. If we embrace this kind of gratitude, we are on the way to truly become more wise and enlightened.

If in contrast we would be grateful for particular things in our life, the question arises how to react if these are taken from us. For instance, one might be grateful for the good health of ones children – but what do we do if a child falls sick?

Buddhist teachings recognise this difficulty and instead encourage us to seek detachment and equanimity. This gratitude practise is somewhat in alignment with this strive for equanimity since we are less likely to focus on ephemeral situations in our lives. However we need to keep in mind that being grateful for being alive should not turn into an unhealthy attachment to our continued existence. To achieve true enlightenment, we must not be attached to being alive but accept in full that our lives are transient.

Image Credit: johnhain

Six Virtues according to Positive Psychology

I have long been an avid follower of the positive psychology movement. Be it justified or not, I am a bit skeptical about psychology as a discipline in general since I got the impression that a lot of established facts and practices in psychology are based on poorly executed studies.

It seems likely that positive psychology is plagued by the same fundamental problems as the general discipline; notwithstanding, the core ideas of positive psychology seem far more appealing to me than those of general psychology: to focus on our strength and what makes us happy instead of what is wrong with our minds.

I am writing this particular post since today I rediscovered an interesting article I found a while ago: Positive Psychology Progress. What particularly struck me in this article was a table which lists six virtues which are generally recognised in many cultures across the globe and character strengths which enable these virtues.

The six virtues identified in the article along with the strength which support them are more or less the following:

  1. Being wise and knowledgeable
    • enabled by Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of learning, Finding new perspectives
  2. Being courageous
    • enabled by Authenticity, Bravery, Persistence, Zest
  3. Being kind, loving and understanding
    • enabled by Kindness, Love, Social intelligence
  4. Being just
    • enabled by Fairness, Leadership, Teamwork
  5. Being temperate
    • enabled by Forgiveness, Modesty, Prudence, Self-regulation
  6. Seeking deeper meaning
    • enabled by Appreciation of beauty and excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Religiousness

Maybe it is my Prussian upbringing but I cannot fail to notice that the virtue of working hard for the benefit of others is not included in this list. To be fair, this is somewhat included under the virtue of courage as the character strength ‘Zest’ and ‘Persistence’ but to me personally this is not emphasised enough. Also I think there is a lot of good to be found in being courageous, and from reading some of Seligman’s books I gathered that he did a lot of work for the US military, so an emphasis on this virtue might have been derived from this. However, I find that courage is often closely associated with foolishness; and I have a feeling we would have far fewer armed conflicts if people happened to be less courageous.

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