All of us have a negativity bias which makes us more apt to remember one mean comment about our writing, our children, our appearance, or our characters, than dozens of positive ones. It's true, isn't it? More disquietingly, I've read, in Andrew Solomon's brilliant The Noonday Demon that the myelin sheath around our nerves wears down as we age, so that, if we live long enough, almost all of us will suffer from depression. And that's not a happy prospect!
I want to live with peace in my soul. I want to live with joy, mindfulness, and gratitude, "in the light of his glory and grace." That phrase is precious to me. I say it to myself, often, when I feel stressed, and my heart and mind race with a hundred thoughts and emotions, and then I remember to pivot, "to turn my eyes on Jesus" once again, "to look full in his wonderful face, until the things of earth grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace," and sanity and good sense return.
One way of pivoting into the presence of Jesus, and living in the light of his glory and grace, is the practice of gratitude. I do this quite deliberately. When I find myself stressed, or distracted, or discombobulated, I like to do what in mindfulness practice is called a three minute breathing space which, astonishingly, often serves to bring peace and clarity. Another practice I use is "the ten finger gratitude exercise" of Mark Williams, author of Mindfulness: count ten blessings or reasons for gratitude on my fingers. Often, my mood and perspective has shifted, and I am calmer before I got to ten!
For years, I have told one of my daughters who had trouble falling asleep to count a hundred blessings to help her sleep, and I often do myself...both the little unnoticed ones—that by God's grace, I have never been in an accident, or broken a bone, and have rarely experienced physical pain, and have reasonably good health. I count my favourite gorgeous paintings, and books, and poems, and places, and people. That changes my mood before I get to a hundred.
Gratitude is the most important ingredient of happiness. Rick Steves who writes wonderful travel guides (and who, a couple of decades ago, converted me to his "Europe by the Backdoor" philosophy, enjoying Europe as many Europeans do, picnic meals in great parks, camper-vanning and campgrounds) writes of a loud disgruntled American eating an expensive meal in an expensive restaurant in a resort which cost five times what Steves recommends spending, loudly grumbling about his life and his taxes; berating his wife, thoroughly miserable through it all. I have often seen that traveller, bringing their internal unhappiness and spoilt-brattiness to exquisite surroundings. On occasion, though rarely, I have been that traveller.
What does it profit you if your business makes, say, a million pounds and you do not have sunshine in your soul? What does it profit you if you seen every beautiful sight in this green planet and have no love in your heart? What does the beautiful home, and garden, and all the beautiful art you seen, and experiences you have had, matter if you do not savour them, at the time, and in memory? Achieving the success of their wildest dreams will not make a person happy unless they are continually grateful for it. I know enough successful, wealthy people to know that this is true.
Some people are naturally more cheerful, sanguine, optimistic and grateful than others. It has to do with an internal, largely genetic, set-point for happiness which psychologists say is virtually impossible to shift. Some people are just more optimistic and sanguine than others, and luckily, I am naturally Micawberish. But gratitude is also a practice, which we learn by practising–and there is nothing more happy-making to practice.
The magic practice of gratitude can change our memories and perceptions of the past. Hold the picture frame of your dark and traumatic memories to the light. Look for the gold, and there was gold there, for God was there. Look for the light and transformation which flowed from the trauma, or still can flow from it. Thank God for the flashes of brightness and goodness in those dark picture frames... for even in them, God was present, and his story for your life was being written.
Gratitude is the most important ingredient of happiness. And it's learnt by practice. During daylight, I practise by looking out and thanking God for the ever-changing panorama of the sky, the clouds floating across it. I thank God for the stars so bright in the countryside where I live. I thank God for the people who love me, for the animals who love me, my Golden Retriever, Pippi, and my labradoodle, Merry; for the continuous beauty of nature, so like a Constable painting so often in the Oxford countryside where I live that it takes my breath away. I thank God for the beautiful countries and art I have seen, and the books and poetry I have read, an internal treasure bank, and the leisure to have enjoyed them. I thank God for my love for Scripture, and for knowing Jesus. I thank God for the continuous presence of the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and ministering angels, so that, at present, I can freely choose "the desert," for I need to get some work done. See, just typing a paragraph like this changes your mood.
Try to count five or ten blessing when you are sad, or stressed, or out of sorts. See if changes your mood. It's almost magical–though the real magic of the spiritual life is not in our practices, but in the great magician himself, in Jesus.
And on occasion, you may need another route out of sadness and general malaise. Sometimes you may need a change of scene, the sea. "The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea." Isak Dinesen
Sometimes, you may just need a hot bubble bath and a good long nap!
Anita Mathias is a writer, Blogger, Reader, Mum. You can find her at https://anitamathias.com/