Gratitude As A Gateway Emotion

by Patricia Bruininks

Hope. Peace. Joy.  These words are ubiquitous this time of year.  Their meaning is fundamental to the story of Christ’s birth, and they constitute three of the four candles lit during advent.

They are also painted on ornaments and picture frames, written across shopping bags, embroidered onto pillows and dish towels, stamped onto mugs and cookie platters, etched into glasses, and even incorporated into advertisements.  As the song in the film Love Actually goes, “Christmas is all around us.”  Are you feeling it?

Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps the plethora of projects and exams is dampening our Christmas “spirit.” Or maybe it’s something else that’s leaving us feeling a little meh about the season.  Maybe it’s the fact that it is all around us.  We’ve been here and done this, and it never quite seems to live up to its promise.  Visions of illuminated trees surrounded by brown paper packages tied up in string inevitably transform into untidy heaps of Styrofoam popcorn, crumpled bows, and wayward pine needles.

Perhaps the problem lies with jumping into this spirit of Christmas without spending enough time in the spirit of Thanksgiving.  After all, the feast that falls on the fourth Thursday of November has become a gateway holiday; the hardcore celebrating starts at 3:00 AM in the parking lot outside a big box store.  Some of those stores even let people in while they’re still inhaling their turkey dinner.  50% off! Buy one get one free!  Free shipping with purchase of $75 or more!  We’re lured in with bargain basement prices but eventually want the good stuff at retail.  We consume until we’re high on stuff; once the thrill wears off we’re hung over with debt and left with a sense of wonder about what it was all for.

There is growing psychological evidence that wanting more – especially when we don’t want what we already have – predicts a diminished sense of well-being. This phenomenon is captured by a psychological construct called the hedonic treadmill, which is the tendency to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or a fulfilled ambition. No matter how fast or long you run toward that utopian destination, you are inevitably brought right back where you started.  The tree that goes up must come down.

Most of my research as a psychologist has been on the emotion of hope – that positive anticipatory state we experience toward a not-yet-realized desired outcome. In the past I have described joy as what happens to hope after the outcome is obtained. The phrase “hope is the journey; joy is the destination” comes to mind. But until God’s promise is fulfilled – the “reason for the season” as some say – our joy will not last. So how can we escape the disappointment of this endless earthly journey?

Fortunately, we have another emotion at our disposal: gratitude. And it is an emotion not dependent on current circumstance, but can be willed into existence through reflection. Psychological research has shown that practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or regularly writing thank you notes can lead to improved psychological and physical health.  Taking time to appreciate what we have instead of focusing on what we do not replaces disappointment and despair with joy and peace.

So maybe we need to take this word of Thanksgiving and keep it in play during Christmas.  Instead of working ourselves into a frenzy to create a perfect day filled with anticipation, maybe we should focus on the anticipation that has already been created for us. Gratitude for what we have been given in the midst of futile consumerism might just be the gateway emotion to truly experiencing hope in God’s promise this season.

Patricia Bruininks grew up in northeast Tennessee.  She left the South to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, eventually graduating from nearby Hope College, where she took a philosophy course from a Dr. Carol Simon.  She pursued her doctoral work in Social Psychology at the University of Oregon, becoming a lifelong Ducks fan.  Before coming to Whitworth, she taught for 5 years at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.  Dr. B is married to Mr. B (Jim) and has two grown sons, one daughter-in-law, and two rescue pets (one cat and one dog).  Her hobbies include crossing national parks off her bucket list (20 down, 39 to go), reading for fun (mostly in the summer months), and watching edifying TV shows like The Walking Dead (for the psychology, of course).  She is Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Psychology Department, and is currently in her seventh year at Whitworth.

Photo above is from here.

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