The Hierarchy of Thanks
Well, that was nice. A day to feast with family and/or friends and give thanks for all we have. Felt good, didn’t it? Why not keep it going?
We can’t feast every day, and we don’t need the celebration of Native American genocide that Thanksgiving Day can become, but we can give thanks, on our own or together.
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It would be good for us if we did. Gratitude expert Richard Emmons PhD and others have collected and conducted studies showing that giving thanks improves physical and psychological health, self-esteem, social relationships, and sleep. Gratitude even helps people overcome trauma.
An embarrassing secret — I have spent years studying psychology, sociology, meditation, spirituality and religion, trying to learn how to be a better person. I wanted to be more peaceful, helpful, and happy. I thought I was becoming someone special. Now I find out it’s all so simple, and millions of people live wonderful lives, without making a fuss about it.
You don’t need a PhD. You don’t have to become a saint or a hero. You don’t have to undergo years of therapy or spend hours each day in meditation and prayer. Just give thanks. The more thanks you give, the better you will feel, and probably the better you will act.
Things to be Thankful For
Do you ever have trouble finding things to be thankful for? You might be looking in the wrong places. Here’s a cheat sheet that will give you a near-infinite number, things we’re surrounded by but rarely notice. I derived them from psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, a structure that classifies all that motivates people. Everything on his list is something we should be thankful for if we have it.
• Think about it. Do you ever give thanks for Air? It’s first on Maslow’s list. — Air is not an inanimate thing that happens to be just right for you. It’s continuously created by animals, plant, and bacteria. You could thank them, and the people who fight so hard to keep air breathable by controlling pollution.
- Water is life — Not just the water you drink, cook, and clean with, but all the water inside you. You’d be dead in a second without it.
- Food — If you thanked all the plants and animals you eat, the insects that pollinate the plants, the bugs, worms, and germs that make the soil, the people who farm them and get them to you, those who pay you the money you use to buy them, you’d never stop. Don’t forget the sun, whose energy you’re eating.
Some of us give thanks before eating; some don’t. It’s a good practice, and even better would be giving thanks for each bite. That way, by the end of the meal, you might have gotten halfway through the list.
• Sleep — if you can sleep, be thankful for that. If not, I hope you can find out why and change it.
That was the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy, basic physical needs. People who have those seek things on the second level, safety and security, and if they have those, the third level, connection. (BTW, if you’re into such things, the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy line up quite well with the seven chakras of Hindu philosophy.)
• Warmth and shelter — if you have those, you’re truly lucky. Think about how you got them and how they’re maintained and what keeps you warm. Your home, your bed, your clothes, the sun, heating systems, the things and people that make you safe. So many of us don’t have those things, and those who do tend to take them for granted.
• Other people in your life, the ones that give you friendship and love, the ones that drive your buses, educate your children, entertain you. The ones that give you meaning, your family and close friends. A teacher you had, a singer whose music moves you, a person who inspires you or makes you laugh.
Can you list 100 of these people? Or one for each year you’ve been here? It’s an interesting party game with significant spiritual rewards.
On the higher levels are things like learning, personal growth, aesthetic appreciation, self-actualization.
• Is there beauty in your life? Whether created by artists or by God or whomever, can you notice and appreciate the colors, the forms, the designs you can see all around you?
• The Internet is a constantly available source of education, beauty, and diversion. There are a lot of bad things on the Net, too, just as there are in life, but there’s a lot to love.
• Then there are all the good things you may have created for yourself, whether or not you had help in doing so. Do you have good self-esteem? Are you still learning and growing?
The Hierarchy goes on — things like fulfillment, like transcendent experience, like helping others, and many others you can see here. I’m sure you can think of many more things to be happy about. Chocolate! Dance! Music! Comedy, Touch, etc. etc.! But it’s not always easy.
Thanks for hard things
If you’re working in a coal mine or an industrial laundry all day, you might not experience as much delight as you deserve. If you lack food, clothing, shelter or comfort, or other bad things are happening, it can be harder to be thankful. These times will happen to all of us if we live long enough, though to some more than others.
How to maintain such an attitude of gratitude when we or someone we love is suffering or dying? Obviously, we can’t do it all the time. We have to take time to grieve, to make changes, and sometimes to fight. But the more we can find to be thankful for, the better we’ll feel and, probably, function.
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According to Dr. Emmons, “It is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.”
One such thing I write about regularly is chronic illness, like diabetes
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Is it possible to be thankful for those? It is. People say things like, “It was a wakeup call,” or “I take better care of myself now,” or “It makes every day a challenge to live well and create something positive.”
Dr. Emmons suggests keeping a mental or written list of things you have to be grateful for, like the ones I listed and the ones you can come up with. Can you come up with five things you are thankful for right now? If you can’t, you didn’t read very well. If you can, you will probably be able to handle the next stress life throws at you.