“Jan, what are you doing?”
I was about 6 and laying on the bottom bunk. Just laying there in the middle of the day. Dad was always getting onto me about laying around daydreaming (which confused me, because I wasn’t sure what that was), but this was Mother.
“If you need to occupy your mind, count your blessings,” she said as she moved about the room and out the door of my bedroom. The house was small, I could hear her still.
“Count your blessings, Janet. That means to make a list of all the things you are happy about. The things you are thankful for. Do you remember that song?”
I hummed and sang the words in my mind.
“Count your blessings name them one-by-one. Count your blessings, see what God has done. Counnnntt your blesssings….. name them one of one. Count your manny blessings, see what God has done!”
I don’t know if I spent time actually counting them then. I always had a great deal of trouble when either of my parents “told me to think about it?’ Maybe I got part way through a list that included being glad I had a mother and a dad, and at this time a tiny little brother and then mentally meandered off to wherever 6 year old brains go. But no matter if I did or didn’t finish that counting task that time, Mother admonished me with the advice often enough that for the next several decades, more so at some times than others, I have practiced the activity. And not practiced the activity.
Like this last month. It’s very easy to be overcome by the sheer weight of reality. This isn’t an easy world to navigate. One might say its worse than in times past, but I don’t know about that. It’s possible it’s been difficult since humanity has been considering what it means to know joy.
I am completely confident I am not alone in this.
I doubt I am alone in drowning my sorrows (or wasting my time) perusing the internet. For good reason.
Facebook and twitter get me.
They seem to know what I would like to buy. Daily they encourage me to evaluate my psyche, giving me clues to who I am based on hard science like my perception of variously colored circles.
I bit on the article that talked about joy and brain chemistry.
“A neuroscience researcher reveals 4 rituals that will make you happier.”
Ritual. Well heck yeah. Habits. Goes right along with all that laying on the bottom bunk letting your mind wander into the forbidden murky waters of day dreaming, rather than expending energy to develop the habit of gratitude for what you have as opposed to what you don’t. I was extraordinarily receptive of this Facebook come-on because for days now I had falling headlong into worry mode which in case you have never gone there, makes counting blessings nearly impossible.
First, the article was a well written review about a book, which having read those reviews I was a little less enthusiastic. However, I persevered. It wasn’t an article about faith even though I am quite certain Facebook knows I am a Christian. So it wasn’t going to (and didn’t) answer the question of “Is there a God, no really, do you still believe that?” It also did not address how those of us who believe can’t imagine how you can make sense of a natural world and not at least consider the a supernatural one as well (please note: I am not talking about seances or the paranormal here). And as much as I love science and count on it, I already knew that neuroscience research has it’s limitations. It’s a tricky business seeing what areas of your brain light up due to increased activity or a surge of brain chemicals and subsequently coordinating that with precise actions or thoughts you confess to.
This article/book was only going to clue you in on science backed habits that help you. Sort of like a recipe for making the commodity joy out of ingredients you didn’t know you had available to you.
Now just imagine my surprise when the second suggestion was about incorporating gratitude in your daily life. As a habit.
Uh huh. The secular equivalent of count your blessings. It turns out that just like Wellbutrin, a prescribed antidepressant, the “act” of even considering things you can be thankful for causes a release of natural dopamine from your brain stem. If you favor Prozac, your attitude of graciousness also stimulates the neurotransmitter serotonin, rather than having to swallow it in pill form.
Now do not get me wrong here! I believe that there are times when we need serious medical intervention for mental illnesses, just like we do when we get pneumonia or need a new heart valve. But also just like that preventative care of our lungs by not smoking or brushing our teeth daily to get nasty crap out from in between the crevices so that we don’t lose them or cause further damage inside of us, our minds can do with proper hygiene.
What is truly fascinating to me about this is that we humans knew this 5000 years ago. I guess when we were trying to figure out how to store grain for winter or make the leap in logic and observation that an infected cut on our foot could lead to locked jaws and death, we also knew that our attitudes about the realities of life required good mental practice.
You know how I know this?
In the Christian Old Testament alone, the practice of gratitude is part and parcel to knowing God. The Psalms testify to that. They are beautiful poems and songs bent on thanking the Creator of the Universe. In fact, there is not a major religion that doesn’t have gratitude at its core beliefs. The process of thankfulness is something integral to us as humans, it is at once an emotion and a value important to every culture. Prosper it and you are better off for it. Prosper and society is better for it. Prosper it and you have a greater chance of joy in the face of whatever comes your way in this life.
But then that is the thorn in the thinking, isn’t it? It’s not that easy sometimes to convince yourself to give thanks. Or to even want to. But thank goodness, it turns out we are and have been hardwired to seek agency in our lives.
That’s where the habit part comes in. And as much as some people might not want to hear it, that is where God comes in. If you are truly a believing Christian, its where the sacrifice of Christ makes so much sense.
For the past two weeks I have practiced counting my blessings. Early in the morning, when I first wake and that little bit of unease settles into my stomach for the worry of what the day could bring, I change my line of thinking and start. Counting my blessings. The list takes me most of the day. Actually longer but there is a point where it becomes a kind of background running program that literally puts a smile on my face.
I wish you the same.
Gratitude. It’s what’s for breakfast.
Collosians 3: 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Thank you Janet. I do thank God every day for my health and my family, but from now on I’m going to go even deeper and think of all the people and things I am grateful for.