A Secular Attitude of Gratitude

A Secular Attitude of Gratitude November 27, 2014
look on the bright side
look on the bright side

Today is Thanksgiving, and that word has a history in the United States, and to a lesser extent, a history around the world. Sukkot is the Jewish harvest festival and refers to the temporary dwellings during the time of wandering. Sukkot includes rejoicing though not gratitude specifically. Chuseok is a more traditional celebration of the harvest on the Autumn Equinox and includes honoring of ancestors. American Thanksgiving (and Canadian Thanksgiving in October) have a key component of gratitude that expands on the harvest celebration. Especially in modern times, gratitude supersedes a harvest that is no longer just for one season.

Gratitude is a secular value. Humanists, Christians, and others share a value of gratitude though they may point at more tangible/real recipients for that gratitude. Christians point at their god. Humanists shake a fist in anger at prayers of gratitude as they want gratitude to point at parents, doctors, engineers, scientists and others whom they see as more proximate causes of the good things in life. But we should stand together to value and express gratitude. (more after the video)

The personal act of recognizing something good and the act of telling others ‘thank-you’ are two distinct and both important parts of gratitude. In addition, optimism, expecting good things, feeds into gratitude, which is actually seeing good things and then giving thanks where deserved. 

Positive Psychology (academically rooted at UPenn) is, so far as I understand, a relatively new discipline in Psychology. In the military, it is often morphed into a quasi-religious evangelism tool called Spiritual Fitness. However, in its original form, it seems scientifically rooted and entirely secular, arguably one of the best expressions of truly secular values ever developed, but that’s another discussion. VIA Institute for Character (interestingly championed by the boxer Muhammed Ali) has a list of character traits any Humanist would approve. A Harvard Medical School newsletter in 2011 conveniently laid out some ideas with empirical studies for why and how to promote gratitude:

  • Write a thank-you note
  • Thank someone mentally
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Count your blessings
  • Pray
  • Meditate

Before you secular folks hiss like a vampire at religious terms like “pray” or “blessings”, be consoled that this blog is not advocating actual prayer or the existence of magical boons granted by divine beings. However, some people can show gratitude even if it’s misplaced. And ‘blessings’ is easily-enough translated to those beneficial things we enjoy in our life.

The opposite of all this is cynicism and depression. Some people are a bit stuck in depression, which is an illness not a choice. But both depression and gratitude feed on themselves and promote opposite feelings of well-being, so be careful to choose the one that feels good. To the extent most of us are able, we should look on the bright side of life, and make sure to let all those who have earned our gratitude know how much we appreciate them.


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