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If the idea that practicing virtues like gratitude can make us happy sounds more spiritual than scientific, you may be surprised to learn that the Positive Psychology Movement has some hard research to back up this claim.
The best-known research is described in the book Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In his groundbreaking study, Seligman asked volunteers to do one of five different tasks. At the beginning of the study, and for six months after, they also took an online happiness/depression assessment to measure their state of mind.
Of the five tasks, one was supposed to be an “inert” or “placebo” activity. As expected, it had a small and short-lived effect on the participant’s happiness. One of the other initial activities also had a small effect that lasted slightly longer.
Three activities, however, had a significant effect on the participant’s happiness that lasted longer than expected.
In the one that had the strongest immediate effect, participants were given a week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude – in person – to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked. These people’s happiness went up dramatically right after the exercise, and then slowly returned to normal over a six month period. (I describe the other exercises in The Secret of Emotions).
Gratitude, of course, is a core virtue, so it should not surprise anyone that such an intense expression of it would have a positive effect on a person’s feelings, but that this positive effect could last up to six months gives us reason for encouragement in our own lives.
Perhaps before this Thanksgiving, each of us should set aside some time to not only think about what we are grateful for this year, but actually write it down. Think ahead to all of the people you expect to see at your Thanksgiving feast, and try to remember something nice they have done, or some character quality that you particularly admire, and then write it down on a card. When it comes around to your turn to tell people what you are grateful for, instead of stumbling through a last-minute list of half-remembered, half-sincere appreciations, you can share with each person at the table exactly how much they mean to you.
I guarantee you that the time you spend on this will be remembered by both you and your family much longer than your candied yams.
Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to illustrate one of the central themes of my books – that our emotions are sensations that tell us about the presence or absence of virtues in our lives.
In The Secret of Emotions, I present a list of words. Here are just a few of them: Enthusiasm, Faith, Forgiveness, Friendship, Generosity, Gentleness, Grace, Gratitude.
Look at them closely. These words represent both virtues and emotions. How can that be? It appears that when we experience virtues, they generate strong emotions, and when we feel strong emotions, we are motivated to practice the corresponding virtues.
The correlation between emotions and virtues is strong, yet subtle. One of the best ways to illustrate it is by considering the virtue of gratitude, or thankfulness.
When we were children many of us were forced to write thank-you notes to friends and relatives for gifts that we weren’t really grateful for. As adults, we have maintained the habit of saying “thank you” for even small favors as a way of showing courtesy. When we say “thank you” as a courtesy, we often don’t feel any sensations of gratitude because we are not really grateful, we are simply being polite.
But think of a time when you truly were grateful – when someone went beyond the call of duty and did something extra special for you. Can you remember that feeling? That sense of, “this is so wonderful, I really can’t thank you enough!” There is a sensation there, isn’t there? That sensation is the emotion of gratitude, and it is generated by the virtue of being grateful for one of the many gifts you have received in your life.
Gratitude the virtue is something we can learn, develop and practice. Gratitude the feeling is something we can ignore, numb, and minimize, or we can celebrate it, cultivate it, and express it every chance we get.
The Thanksgiving season is a good time to think about our relationship to gratitude. For all of the many times we say “thank you” how often do we really allow ourselves to feel the sensation of gratitude? If we don’t feel it, then are we really practicing the virtue, or just giving it lip service? Does it matter?
Here is my favorite quotation on the subject:
“Thankfulness is of various kinds. There is a verbal thanksgiving which is confined to a mere utterance of gratitude. This is of no importance because perchance the tongue may give thanks while the heart is unaware of it. Many who offer thanks to God are of this type, their spirits and hearts unconscious of thanksgiving. This is mere usage, just as when we meet, receive a gift and say thank you, speaking the words without significance. One may say thank you a thousand times while the heart remains thankless, ungrateful. Therefore, mere verbal thanksgiving is without effect. But real thankfulness is a cordial giving of thanks from the heart. When man in response to the favors of God manifests susceptibilities of conscience, the heart is happy, the spirit is exhilarated. These spiritual susceptibilities are ideal thanksgiving.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
According to this, it does make a difference whether we simply utter our thanks, or actually feel it – and one of the differences is that true thankfulness will make the heart happy. That is something worth thinking about as we enter Thanksgiving week.
With Thanksgiving approaching, I thought now would be a good time to share my dieting secrets. I call this plan the sensational diet because instead of focusing on the kind of foods you are allowed to eat, it focuses on the kinds of sensations that eating food generates.
You don’t have to be a hedonist to appreciate the importance of sensation in our lives. Physical sensations are what tell us that we are physically alive. If we could not touch, taste, hear, see or smell, we would be hard-pressed to prove, even to ourselves, that we were physically alive.
Less understood, but even more important, spiritual sensations tell us that we are spiritually alive. Without emotional sensations such as joy, sadness, enthusiasm, anger, and wonder, we could lose touch with our inner reality. We would become spiritually dead.
The physical sensations that tell us that we are physically alive and the spiritual sensations that tell us that we are spiritually alive are experienced in similar ways. Physical excitement and spiritual enthusiasm, physical stress and spiritual anxiety, physical hunger and spiritual emptiness – these generate parallel sensations that are difficult to distinguish. This is because our bodies and souls were created to work together. Consequently, we often experience spiritual emptiness as a kind of physical hunger.
All of us, to some degree or another, use the pleasurable physical sensations associated with eating food as a replacement for the spiritual sensations that are lacking in our lives. Chocolate is a lot easier to come by than sincere love and kindness. Though it might not really fool the soul, if the body identifies the sensation as one of comfort, the soul is willing to go along with it. We eat, then, in order to feel spiritually alive and fulfilled.
Any diet that tries to limit the pleasurable sensations we get from eating will be interpreted by the spirit as an attempt to limit our sense of feeling alive, and is doomed to failure. Food keeps us physically alive, but diverse tastes make us feel spiritually alive because they are material reflections of the virtues of beauty, sweetness, balance, audacity and more. If we were willing to live without these sensations, we could lose weight with the “duct tape diet” in which you can eat anything you want, but you have to put a piece of duct tape over your tongue to block out all sensations of taste and texture. Such a diet would obviously fail because we are not willing to give up one of our primary senses just so that we can lose some weight. Likewise, we are instinctively unwilling to give up a source of spiritual comfort in order to receive some long-term physical gain. For a diet to work, it must not try to take away what is currently meeting a spiritual need, but rather, it must find a way to meet that need in some new and healthy way.
In other words, if we come to grips with the fact that food does not really equal love, then we can’t just take away the food. We have to add more love. We cannot create a vacuum and expect that nothing will sweep in to fill it. If we are feeling spiritually empty, we must first, before any change in our eating habits, find ways to fill that spiritual void. Only then can we safely reduce the amount of physical sensations we generate through food without risking self-sabotage. We certainly don’t want to find ourselves trying to replace both food and spiritual joy with drugs, overspending, or risky sexual behavior. We must find the healthy replacement first, then drop the unhealthy habits, not the other way around.
The secret of the Sensational Diet, then, is to generate positive spiritual sensations through the practice of virtues so that you don’t feel compelled to create substitute physical sensations by eating comforting foods.
Sing a song, say a prayer, call a friends, throw a kiss, draw a picture, read a poem, look out the window, learn a new word, compliment a coworker, express gratitude. There are so many good ways to feel that don’t involve your tongue. Find your favorite.
Note: This is the introduction of a book I may or may not ever write. I welcome your comments.