Gratitude is not only the key to virtue, but also to happiness and prayer.
The expression “I never knew a person who was grateful and unhappy, or a person who was ungrateful and happy” captures this correlation beautifully. Much of human happiness and generosity flows naturally from gratitude to God and others, and so much misery and vice flow out of an ungrateful person’s resentment.
How can we cultivate this life-changing attitude?
Step 1: Looking for the Good News and Realistic Optimism
To understand the first step in cultivating gratitude, we need to recall Fr. Spitzer’s discussion of contributive and transcendent happiness. There, he pinpoints “looking for the good news in others” as the way to develop empathy, and empathy as the path to contributive and even self-sacrificial love.
This focus on the good news might seem naïve, but that is to assume that bad news is more real and important than good news. The truth is that a positive and realistic view of life includes recognizing potential obstacles without losing sight that one’s goals are worthy and achievable. This in turn provides the energy and incentive to overcome any potential obstacles.
The art and discipline of realistic optimism can lead us to the art and discipline of looking for the good news in our lives. This is the beginning of gratitude.
Step 2: Curb Expectations of Entitlement
The second step in cultivating gratitude is to curb the expectation of entitlement and “perfect fairness.” We can do this when we recognize that because of our freedom (which is necessary for us to love), we live in an imperfect world with other human agents who may misuse their freedom along with us.
If we are to get beyond our egocentricity, we will see that we need the help of God and others, as well as the gifts of forgiveness, healing, mercy, contribution, and love.
Step 3: See Life as a Pure Gift
The third step in cultivating gratitude is to affirm the truth that our lives are not necessary but a pure gift from the Creator. We can infer this conclusion from several considerations that are presented in “The Soul’s Upward Yearning” (Volume 2 of the quartet). In section two of that work, Fr. Spitzer demonstrates that each of us has a unique trans-physical soul that survives bodily death, implying a trans-physical cause (i.e. God).
Why would He create us with five transcendental desires unless He intended to satisfy them with Himself? If we choose to love Him and others—transcending our egocentricity—He will give Himself to us in loving fulfillment forever.
Step 4: Say, “Thank You!”
The fourth step is to affirm the truth about our lives with a natural response—an exclamation of “Thank you!” When we sincerely thank the Lord for all that we have and are, and see everything as a gift, we experience the profound recognition that everything comes to us through His gratuitous love. In this sense, saying thank you is the same as saying, “I love you, too!”
Cultivating gratitude, then, is a foundational step to cultivating a heart of love, the key to the whole of a Christian’s spiritual life.
Love Counters Sin and Leads to a Life of Service
Gratitude creates deep changes in a person’s life, and here is why.
When we recognize the gratuitous love behind our very existence, behind creation and the beauty around us, behind Jesus’ incarnation, His ministry of healing, and His death and resurrection, we are naturally filled with wonder and offer praise and thanksgiving to God.
Gratitude inspires us to offer a return of love in actions which imitate the love that has been shown to us. Additionally, when it comes to prayer, a recognition of God’s loving care and providence increases our trust and gives us patience to wait confidently for the resolution of our cares and challenges.
Trust in turn brings peace allowing us to pray more deeply and without distraction. This peace dispels resentments, jealousy, inferiority, anger, fear, and anxiety, opening the way to an experience of God’s presence, friendship, encouragement, and support.
Once again, we are moved to praise Him! (The Psalms of praise to God capture this spirit—as can meditating on our salvation in the mysteries of the Rosary.) When we pray in this way, God can more freely communicate with us, giving us further insight into who He is and how He operates.
These felt experiences can be profoundly comforting. Additionally, God may give us words and ideas to help others. So not only does gratitude stand as the foundation of the spiritual life—as St. Ignatius believed and taught in his Examen—but it is equally the foundation of an active life of service.