In 2015, Oliver Sacks got unexpected news, he had terminal cancer. Despite his diagnosis and the difficult months that followed, Sacks was, more than anything else, grateful. Grateful and inspired. So much so, he wrote four new essays, which were published in the New York Times and then as a book entitled Gratitude.
In the book, Sacks reflects on all he has to be grateful for:
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
It’s a grand sort of gratitude that looks back on a life full of life’s most precious gifts. The language he chooses, that of giving and receiving, evokes the positive psychology work of Robert Emmons, which focuses on gratitude. Emmons refers to gratitude as the gifts and benefits we’ve received. The idea is to go beyond merely recognizing that there’s good in life, but to acknowledge that it comes from beyond us.
Giving thanks is mutually beneficial to the grateful and the source of the gift. It strengthens relationships and builds self-esteem. It reduces stress and increases positive emotions by decreasing cortisol levels and activating the brain’s limbic system. In workplaces, it builds trust and camaraderie and leads to greater innovation. That’s because gratitude pulls us out of harmful thinking patterns, like anxiety and rumination, and clears the way for creative thinking.
Contrary to the myth of the suffering artist (Thanks, Hemmingway!), approaching projects unencumbered by negativity improves productivity. It allows us to think broader, clearer, and more creatively because we’ve got more to give. It’s a form of mindful observation that helps us pay closer attention to the world around us and its positive impact on our life. The more we take in, the more we notice, the more we can draw on for inspiration.
You’ve likely tried interventions like keeping a gratitude journal or writing a gratitude letter with varying degrees of success. Here’s one of Emmons’ gratitude exercises that you likely haven’t tried. Think back on a time of suffering in your life. Visit it fully but don’t move in. We’re not here to relive trauma. Now, think of how your life has changed. Recognize that you made it through to this point. You’re here, now.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What lessons have I learned?
- What surprising ability was drawn out of me?
- How am I more the person I want to be now?
- Can I find gratitude for parts of my suffering?
As we approach the holidays during this very strange year, it’s worth noting that Sacks and Emmons are onto something. Gratitude is easy in good times. But it’s now that we need it most. In hard times, it can feel impossible to acknowledge the good. At times it can feel borderline inappropriate.
It’s up to us to know that it’s not only appropriate, but necessary. With Sacks, both a brilliant scientific mind and a prolific storyteller, as our example, we can find inspiration in the darkest of times. We can use our gratitude, our gifts, to ease our own suffering and maybe that of others.
“The most we can do is to write – intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time.” - Oliver Sacks (April 15, 2015)