Contentment and Gratitude

Posts in the Sermon Prep: Contentment series

  1. This Week’s Sermon Will Be on Contentment
  2. Contentment and Gratitude
  3. Paul’s Writings on Contentment
  4. Solomon vs. Paul: gratitude, simplicity, the present, and meaning
  5. The Secret of Contentment

Martin Seligman is the leading prophet of the new science of Positive Psychology. Since its inception, psychology has been fixated with a disease model of mental health; the role of psychology was “making miserable people less miserable.” It wasn’t until recently that Seligman and others started to ask if psychology should also be focusing on what they call “positive intervention”, specific learned actions to increase the flourishing of already healthy individuals. They are working to identify what happiness is, what different factors contribute to it, and to develop specific exercises that can increase happiness.

If this sounds like an episode of Oprah masquerading as science, then yes, it does sound exactly like that. Until you check out the actual research, the methods they’re using, and the rigor with which they’re analyzing the results (check out their published results in the journal of the American Psychology Association – pdf link). They’re doing actual sciency things! Like, using a control group, accounting for deceptive self-reporting, tracking the degradation of results over time, things like that.

Obviously, somebody in the group spent a little time reading old dead white guys, because they’ve divided up that big vague term, happiness, into three different kinds of lives, which are suspiciously close to the kinds of eudaimonia that Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus kept harping on.

  • The Pleasant Life – what we might think of as a life of leasure, surrounded by comforts and positive experiences. The rock star life. Solomon (maybe). Of the three kinds of happy, the pleasant life dissipates the most quickly. It turns out that the positive emotion generated by pleasant experiences acclimates quickly. The first time you use your new iPhone, you generate a lot of joy. The second time, some. The third time, it’s become habituated, you acclimate to it, and you no longer feel joy. Debt, yes; joy, no.
  • The Engaged Life – the person who has sustained experiences that match up closely with their strengths, and from which they derive satisfaction. When they are engaged in those experiences, their awareness of things outside of their local experience decreases, the “time slows down” idea. The poker player who is completely in the moment whenever she plays. The musician for whom the 50 minute singer/songwriter set at Hotel Cafe is a highly engaged experience, where time slows down and they meld into their songs. These experiences have a more lasting effect on personal happiness, and rather than being quickly acclimated to, they produce increasing satisfaction. The more engaged experiences you have, the more each one impacts your personal happiness.
  • The Meaningful Life – Using your primary strengths in the service of something larger than yourself. Mother Teresa. Larry Brilliant. The Apostle Paul. Richard Simmons. This produced the most sustained level of satisfaction of any of the three, and it is the least easily dissipated. You know, almost as if human nature were uniquely designed with this in mind!

Armed with these different definitions of happiness, Seligman and others designed exercises to try to increase the amount of satisfaction or pleasure derived from positive experiences. These include things like doing a personal daily review to reflect on three positive experience, and to examine the causes of those experiences. Another exercise is to plan ahead of time a beautiful day, and then to carry it out. Again, what distinguishes this from checkout stand pop psychology is that these exercises are done with large population samples, the outcomes are measured against control groups, and the outcomes are measured multiple times afterward, to check for decay. These are rigorous scientific studies, not self-help guides.

The exercise that sparked my attention was something called a “Gratitude Visit.” In this exercise, you think of someone in your life who did something positive that had a lasting impact on your life, whom you never properly thanked. You write that person a letter expressing your gratitude, you go visit that person face to face, and read them the letter. Of everything tested, the gratitude visit had, by far, the largest impact on a persons positive mental state. Participants had a 30% increase in personal happiness in the days following the exercise, they maintained high levels of joy in the month following, and it took about 3 months for the impact of the exercise on mental state to dissipate. 3 months of increased joy, from one act of deeply expressed gratitude.

I love it, so much, when scientific process gets around to demonstrating things that people of faith have known for a long time. This is not a science vs. faith statement – science is executing its search for knowledge by a different means, and with appropriately self-limiting tools at its disposal. But for people of faith, this idea of gratitude as an essential component of happiness is as old as Adam (or at least, as old as Moses and his merry band of bitchy Jews).

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Entitlement demands, gratitude receives. Entitlement is the byproduct of pride, gratitude is the emotional of humility. I don’t think it’s an accident that Paul’s landmark statement on contentment, and his explicit connection of contentment to the person of Chris, comes only a few paragraphs away from his landmark statement on humility, and his explicit modeling on the nature of Christ.

Humility begets gratitude, gratitude yields sustained joy, the kind which does not dissipate into discontentment.

Previous in series: This Week’s Sermon Will Be on Contentment

Next in series: Paul’s Writings on Contentment

4 thoughts on “Contentment and Gratitude

  1. sharolyn

    I need this sermon! It was so silly, but in church on Sunday, they announced that there will be congregational meeting in a couple of weeks, and PLEASE BRING PIE TO SHARE. Later, the pastor was preaching about “idols” that are common in our life (what you describe as The Pleasant Life), and I kept thinking, Yes, Yes, this is truth, truth…. yet I cannot stop thinking about pie.

    I’m a big goof who is grateful God loves me anyway.

  2. Laetitia Bailey-Mortimer

    Ah, some stuff I need to keep in mind the next time I form my ‘pity party’ of 1.

    Just a side thing, Moses didn’t lead just the Jews out of Egypt but all the tribes of Israel. Due to the tribe of Judah being the only still identifiable tribe left after just about everyone else got carried off by Assyrians and Babylonians, people forget that that up until the splitting of the kingdom (into Israel & Judah) they were known collectively as ‘Hebrews’ not ‘Jews’.

  3. michael lee Post author

    Welcome, Laetitia. Glad you found us.

    I wasn’t intending to use the phrase “Moses and his merry band of bitchy Jews” in the technical, academic sense. I just didn’t think “Moses and his merry band of bitchy Semitic People Group” had quite the same zing.

  4. Pingback: A Grateful Heart | Addison Road

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