I needed to take my daily exercise walk, but the recliner was comfortable and Mozart’s music almost hypnotically soothing. Did I have enough self-control to get up and put on my walking shoes? To strengthen my willpower, I used the latest scientific technique. I began mentally reviewing all the things in life for which I was grateful; and—being religious—I even thanked God for these blessings, which ultimately come from Above. Suddenly, I felt a surge of strength and power. Almost before I knew it, I was walking down Pelton Street toward Fairview Park.
This latest technique is not quite so dramatic in its effect as I’ve described above, but David DeSteno’s research (see also this podcast) does support the general idea that feelings of gratitude reinforce our willpower and help us take future actions toward achieving our goals. In his research, DeSteno had some of his subjects think of something for which they were grateful. Others were instructed to think of something that made them happy. Then everyone was given the choice between receiving $17.00 now or $100.00 in a year.
The grateful subjects were able to better control their impulse to take a present reward. As the experiment progressed, $31.00 was required to get the gratitude people to take the money now. DeSteno explains that the emotion of gratitude is forward-looking. When we feel grateful, we also feel a desire to reciprocate and cooperate in the future. Thus, our willpower is strengthened against instant gratification and can help us wait for future fulfillment. That more robust will may also help us get off the couch and go outside for exercise whether alone or in the company of others.
Various religions, of course, have long taught that gratitude for God’s gifts is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life. Hannah Whitehall Smith, originally a Quaker, writes, “This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable.”
My own favorite gratitude Bible verse is St. Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:4-6.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is
at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by
prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your
requests be made known to God; and the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts
and minds through Christ Jesus.
My wish, then, for myself and everyone is for us to frequently “count our blessings” and thereby be strengthened to work for those spiritual goals which we have set for our lives.
But I’m not through. Another emotion—anger—is surprisingly common among Quakers. My own Quaker mentor, now deceased, was full of what I would call righteous anger although sometimes that hostility came out in a wicked sense of humor that might be directed at anyone who “crossed” him. I personally haven’t experienced conflict and anger in a Monthly Meeting, but four or five other people assure me that the phenomenon is quite common. There is, apparently, the existential struggle between some theists and non-theists; but the bitterest arguments seem to be over things like the color to paint a meeting house kitchen or whether to put a rug in a conference room. Sometimes, I hear, there are “titanic” power struggles in a committee, usually between two strong-willed members.
What to do? While one wonders what effect feelings of gratitude might have on Quaker disagreements, one Friend suggests a method of de-escalation that has worked for her. Simply begin silent worship instead of vocally fighting. Worship provides a space for quiet reflection, hopefully with Spirit’s guidance. Her formula is to repeat worship as often as necessary and not allow pointless vocal wrangling to occur. Eventually, she tells me, a resolution to the conflict may emerge from among the participants in the argument.
And now I’m finished with this short disquisition on emotions. May God/Spirit/the Eternal rule our emotional life for the greater good and for—perhaps—the establishment of a “Blessed Community.”
~ Richard Russell
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