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Gratitude: An Act of the Will

Gratitude attunes us to the immense value of what actually exists now. Simply being alive, that we have our senses, or a family, or a mind. given how much there always is to be disappointed by, afraid of, or mad at, this focus requires a powerful act of mind. I will have to remember that I have a wife that has loved me for forty years, not her nasty comment at dinner last night or the way she forgot our anniversary. I will have to focus on my ability to walk, even though I've hurt my foot and can't play in the weekly basketball game I enjoy so much. I appreciate the birch tree outside my window, rather than bitterly envying the folks that get to hike in Colorado. In these mental movements I grasp what the Talmud had in mind when it defined wealth not as a particular quantity of money, but as being satisfied with what one has.

The second element of gratitude is the sense that these precious things we have are a kind of gift. Did we earn the existence of music in the world? the flowers in spring? the mysterious intelligence of our eyes? Do we "deserve" them? In the realm of gratitude we do not….

Oddly, no matter how much more pleasant it is to focus on the good rather than the bad, we must make a repeated conscious desire to cultivate gratitude. And this is true whether we believe we are thanking our Creator or are simply enjoying the miracle that we are alive. The tendency to focus on the negative is every bit as "natural," or at least as widespread, as any capacity for joyful appreciation. As Aldous Huxley suggested, "Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted." Fear, regret, a burning resentment that we were cheated out of our just deserts, desperate longing for something that is out of reach—all these possess a powerful emotional magnetism that binds our thoughts to the painful. That is why the spirituality of gratitude requires the hard, recurring choice to focus on this rather than that, to feel better rather than feel worse.

Just because it requires shifting attention from one kind of thing to another, gratitude is as much an active act of will as a moment of grace.

- Roger S. Gottlieb, "Gratitude: An Active Act of Will," Patheos.com, 5/26/11.