Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Psychology of Gratitude

In 1943, Psychological Review magazine published Abraham Maslow's, "A Theory of Human Motivation". In an era when psychology focused on the mentally ill, Maslow had studied exemplary individuals like Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass and Eleanor Roosevelt to explain what is now well known around the world as the hierarchy of human needs.

You have almost certainly heard of Maslow's Needs, but in essence, Maslow suggested that each of us have certain needs that must be met for us to be at our best. Our needs range from the most basic, like eating and breathing, to those with more complexity and depth like confidence, love and achievement. As we develop and grow, each tier of needs can be a stepping stone or an obstacle to our progress. The love of our friends and family can help us develop the confidence to solve difficult problems; but on the other hand we may struggle a great deal to be creative if we are hungry, worried about finances or arguing with a family member.

There are many gospel lessons wrapped into this small pyramid. We can easily see the wisdom of prophetic counsel to keep food storage on hand, the importance of self-reliance and the essential role family relationships play in our lives. The pyramid helps explain how our fast offerings and charitable donations can not only get a family through a difficult financial situation but also improve their family relationships and put individuals in a better state to commune with God.  It shows the downward spiral of addictions and vice; the damage we do to ourselves when we are angry with others; and the incalculable returns of faith as acceptance of facts even when we do not yet understand them, repentance as a way of correcting and improving our course in life and kindness toward others as a life philosophy.

Most of us tend to do a quick evaluation of our own lives when we review Maslow's pyramid. We all move up and down the hierarchy throughout the day and over weeks and months and years, but almost always we find an opportunity or two in our review that we are sure we can address to improve our productivity and enjoy greater life satisfaction. Wherever we find ourselves on the pyramid, there is one principle that can always lift us up.

In his book, The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis wrote, "What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are." In other words, the reality we experience depends a great deal on how we perceive it. And, by the same token, our perceptions will be informed by who we are and what we desire from our experiences.

The happiest person I've ever known was my maternal grandmother. Grandma grew up in the deserts of eastern Utah during the depression years of the 1930s. She served at Fort Douglas in World War II then married my grandfather, a teacher, with whom she raised a family of eight children. Grandma lost a teenage son to cancer, gave countless hours in church and community service, and spent the last several years of her life selflessly caring for a husband with dementia even while her own health declined.

Despite all she had been through, I seldom saw Grandma when she wasn't quick to share a warm smile and make others laugh with her subtle, dry sense of humor. She had a sharp mind, enjoyed helping others be their best, and could tell from the kitchen if I was slouching while practicing on the living room piano. She was a talented pianist herself and enjoyed writing short stories and poetry. Grandma refused to say a negative word and would often rebut the unpleasant remarks of others with a simple exclamation of, "Oh, well!" Everyone who knew my grandma knew that "Oh, well!" meant that Grandma was about to turn the conversation in a more positive and uplifting direction.

Grandma seemed to spend most of her time near the top of Maslow's hierarchy, but her experience is hardly unique. Missionaries, researchers and world travelers report finding the happiest people are often those in the most humble circumstances or with the most incredible challenges. This seems counter-intuitive to us because the prevailing social theory has long been that happiness follows success.

The trouble is, if happiness is on the other side of success, we end up spending all of our time pushing happiness farther and farther away while we pursue the next fleeting success. When we do well in school, we expect to do better the next time. When we get a good job, we start "climbing the ladder" for a better one. We make money and only end up wanting more than we have. Ultimately, of course, we never get to "success", at least not for long, so we continue to push until happiness eventually disappears beyond the cognitive horizon and there's nothing we can do to actually achieve happiness.

Instead of refuting Maslow's theory, the humble but happy around the world provide an important insight: they remind us that the satisfaction of each tier of needs, in terms of our ultimate happiness and productivity, depends only on our perception of their fulfillment. When we put happiness on the other side of arbitrary successes, we allow our own covetousness to tint our perception so that our needs are never met and we slide down the pyramid. This is why so many "successful" celebrities spend so much time on the bottom half of the pyramid. On the other hand, when we are sincerely grateful and can see the bounty of what we have, we can move up the hierarchy because we are satisfied even when we may not have as much.

The Lord taught: "He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more" (D&C 78:19). Grandma wasn't happy because she was successful; she was successful because she was happy and she was happy because she was grateful. Like other attributes, gratitude grows as it is practiced. As we learn to see the good in our lives-- to view the pyramid of Maslow's needs and count our blessings rather that looking only for what needs to be fixed-- we will find the Lord has already given us all we need to rise to the top of the pyramid if we will only be grateful enough to see it.

Later in his life, Maslow returned to his hierarchy with this final insight: "The most fortunate are those who have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy."