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Spiritual But Secular

For the non-religious, giving thanks without God has merit. It’s the attitude of gratitude that counts.

By Anne Bokma


Canadian journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of the bestselling memoir Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, was newly out of rehab and struggling with the prospect of living a life of sobriety when she made a pact with a friend: every morning they would email each other a list of at least five things for which they were grateful. There were rules — they couldn’t repeat themselves during any one week, and they had to be specific. It wasn’t enough to be thankful for a pretty sunset; they had to explain exactly why that sinking orange orb caused a feeling of gratitude.

That was seven years ago, and Dowsett Johnston hasn’t missed a single day of giving thanks. Although in the intervening years she has dealt with losing her father, breaking up with her fiancé and the challenges of depression, she says the five-minute daily exercise has brought her a profound sense of contentment — so much so that she’s sharing the experience in her next book, The Gratitude Project: How to Find Peace in Challenging Times, being published next year.

“It’s brought a lot of radiance to my world, a real luminosity and a sense of peace and comfort,” says Dowsett Johnston, who was raised in the United Church and now considers herself spiritual but not religious (SBNR). Her adult faith, she adds, has been shaped by Buddhism and the belief that her sobriety is divinely supported. “Many of us who are practising gratitude are profoundly spiritual, yet we aren’t finding ourselves at home in a traditional house of worship,” she says. “This gratitude process of mine is like a prayer each morning — it’s a ritual, a connection of intimacy with my friend, and it causes me to look deeply at my life. It provides me with many of the things people get from going to church.”

While Thanksgiving is often associated with overindulging on turkey and tension-filled family dynamics around the dinner table, it’s the favourite secular holiday of positive psychologists and neuro-scientists. These experts point to empirical evidence that supports the benefits of building gratitude into everyday life, arguing that the recipe for spiritual well-being is to regularly and thoughtfully give thanks.

Christians have long directed their thanks heavenward. But according to Rev. Carl Gregg, a Unitarian minister in Frederick, Md., SBNRs who don’t have a deity to feel indebted to aren’t missing out. Having counted his blessings each night for 12 years, Gregg understands the power of gratitude first-hand. “Giving thanks has intrinsic value all on its own, and you don’t need to be connected to anything extrinsic,” he says.

Skeptics may view gratitude practices as an Oprah-lite approach to inner contentment. Simply write down all the great things in your life and you’ll be happy? It seems too easy. But gratitude is more than just feeling good. Grateful people, one 2012 study of 1,000 Swiss adults found, report feeling healthier than others. With regular practice, it may make anyone a little kinder.

Gregg says gratitude exercises offer consolation in times of difficulty: “At its best, gratitude counters everything that is desolating in our lives, anything that drains us of energy and disconnects us from our best selves and leaves us feeling isolated and alienated.”

If gratitude is a skill that needs to be exercised regularly, Thanksgiving is “the World Series of practising gratitude,” he adds. Get good at gratitude and it will serve as an antidote to the frustrations of “spending time with family members who are often simultaneously some of the people we are most grateful for and the ones who can trigger our worst selves most easily.”

The medieval theologian Meister Eckhart observed, “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

Even SBNRs would say amen to that.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.


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