— by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —
Gratitude is the emotion most associated with happiness and mental health. Gratitude helps us focus on what we have instead of what we don’t have, enhances the immune system, and fills us with a sense of expansiveness rather than contraction; warmth and calm instead of upset.
The good thing is that it is easy, once we focus on what we have been given. Just the fact of being alive is the greatest gift possible and we all have been given it. Plus the gift of consciousness, an incredible human brain, the ability to enjoy beauty, and the possibility of developing according to our own inclinations.
We each have individual life circumstances that vary widely in terms of health, family, wealth, opportunity. But we all have the ability to count our blessings, and we all, who read this, are still alive and able to savor the gift of life.
For myself, I am grateful for the incredible living Earth I walk upon. For the air I breathe, given to me by the plant kingdom. For the breezes that bring news from far places, even if I can’t read the language; breezes, that have been breathed in and out by countless other living beings in a great, living rhythm. For having water to drink, bathe in, cleanse myself. For having food to eat. For the living beings, plant or animal, that gave themselves as food to nourish us. For the companionship of other living beings—humans, animals, trees, plants. This all can sound trite—unless we suddenly don’t have it—food, water, or clean fresh air. We humans have a habit of taking things we have for granted—and assuming it will always be so. Thanksgiving is a time to take time and reflect on all we have been given. Taking things for granted is one of the failings of a wealthy civilization given to comfort and convenience. It can ruin us. Gratitude can save us.
Sometimes I have the fantasy of society arranging a coming-of-age ritual where all school children go on a supervised “gratitude” quest, where they go without water, shelter or food for a day. Having everything we want and need on a daily basis can be numbing. One of the joys of living in a cold winter as we have here is the pleasure of walking into a warm cabin with a fireplace. Growing one’s own food, even if it is a basil plant in an apartment, helps us see the giving quality and bounty of the Earth, of where food comes from, of the miracle of a seed. Walking in the hot desert and running out of water, thirsty, and then finding it—one never feels the same about water again. It is forever after a gift. As is sunshine. Rain. Shade. The company of trees.The sweet fragrance of green things.
So many, many gifts. The ability to rescue a dog or cat or horse and receive their love and loyalty and companionship is one of the deeper joys in life. The opportunity to help the less fortunate of our own species. To create beauty in whatever form. To go to a museum and see the beauty humans have created. To hear great music. To watch a sunset. To be able to see, hear, feel. To be able to imagine, create, share. The list is endless.
It is good to have a national Thanks-Giving day. We might even think about the benefits of having a personal or community one, more than once a year. Or even a brief daily morning or evening practice. It would be a good way to live.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.