MEISTER ECKHART wrote, “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank You’, that would suffice” (August Turak, “A leadership lesson from Meister Eckhart”, Forbes, 5 August 2011). More recently, Matthieu Ricard, who has been called “the happiest man in the world”, affirmed the power of thanksgiving in a much-viewed TED talk (Matthieu Ricard, “The habits of happiness”, TED2004, February 2004).
This wisdom is deeply rooted not only in the Christian faith but also in the wider world of faith and science. Gratitude is good food for the soul. The Journal of Happiness Studies found that participants who wrote three letters of gratitude over a three-week period displayed both increased happiness indicators and decreased symptoms of depression.
GRATITUDE is powerful because it undoes pride and despair, both of which are poison to the soul. When the disciples returned to Jesus having seen great things happening on mission, rather than focusing on their success, Jesus instructed them to give thanks that their names were written in the book of life (Luke 10.1–20).
That is cause for thanksgiving both when much is happening (for which we could be proud) and when nothing is happening (about which we could despair).
Gratitude also punctures our contemporary culture of “entitlement”. To express thanks is to take something out of the realm of “a right” and into the realm of “gift”. Yet, thankfulness remains one of the easiest things in the world to forget. In some of the earliest market research ever recorded, we see that nine out of ten lepers forgot to say thank you (Luke 17.17).
SOMETIMES, life is so harsh that we do not know where to begin with thanksgiving. Ignatius of Loyola’s advice in such circumstances is “Start with your next breath” (An Ignatian way to live, jesuit.org.uk/ignatian-way-live). Try this and see where you end up.
Thanksgiving needs to be intentional. Psychologists tell us that, while we instantly and instinctively record disasters, we only remember good things when we deliberately reflect on them for 15 seconds or more. Like Velcro, negative experiences stick, whereas positive ones slide away as if on Teflon.
We therefore need to actively hold on to the positive so that it imprints, and is digested by, our soul. Rick Hanson says, “At the banquets of life, bring a big spoon” (Taking in the good, rickhanson.net).
YOU can help your brain register positive experiences by keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for, sharing three good things each day with a friend or partner, or going out of your way to express gratitude to others.
A tried-and-tested way to partake of this sweet dessert is through the Prayer of Examen, developed by Ignatius of Loyola. This is a prayerful reflection on each day’s events through which to notice God’s presence and discern his direction for us. We work through these stages:
• Become aware of God’s presence, looking back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit.
• Review the day with gratitude. Walk through your day with God and note its gifts and joys.
• Pay attention to emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced. What is God saying through them? As you become aware of ways that you fell short, offer these to God.
• Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that is particularly important and pray about it.
• Look towards tomorrow. Ask God to give you what you need for tomorrow’s challenges.
• End the Examen in conversation with Jesus in the spirit of gratitude.
IN THEIR book Sleeping with Bread, the Linn siblings draw on an image that comes from orphaned children in refugee camps. The children would find it difficult to sleep, fearful that they would wake up to find themselves once again without food. Their carers eventually found that giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime enabled them to sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow” (Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding what gives you life; Paulist Press, 1995).
Reflecting with gratitude to God at the end of each day sustains us as we notice God’s presence and provision, and readies us to look for them again tomorrow. In its simplest form, the prayer asks two questions: “For what moment today am I most grateful? For what today am I least grateful?”
The wonder is that when we learn to feed on gratitude, we become so satiated by it that our lives of thanksgiving overflow into the lives of those who bump into us. Richard Rohr writes: “A daily ‘attitude of gratitude’ keeps your hands open to receive life at ever-deeper levels of satisfaction. . . Those who live with such open and humble hands receive life’s gifts in abundance” (Breathing under Water: Spirituality and the twelve steps; SPCK, 2016).
This is an edited extract from Sustaining Leadership: You are more important than your ministry by Paul Swann, published by the Bible Reading Fellowship at £8.99 (CT Bookshop, £8.10).