Gratitude and the Path to Wholeness

Posted by Melissa Ruisz Nazario on Nov 22, 2018 7:05:50 AM

A blog post by Melissa Ruisz Nazario

andrea-windolph-437185-unsplashAt this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the earth’s axis orients away from the sun, temperatures cool, and many of us celebrate with loved ones some form of thankfulness and respite from work–modern iterations of our ancestors’ harvest festivals.

Though the concept of gratitude is also ancient, it has become a bit of a modern buzzword. So, is gratitude really as beneficial as the masses say it is? Actually, yes. Robert A. Emmons and Robin Stern, researchers known for their work in studying gratitude, reviewed studies on the subject and list several of the physical, emotional, and psychological outcomes of cultivating gratitude in “Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention.” [1] 

Practicing gratitude can:
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve immune function
  • Enable quicker recovery from illness
  • Allow one to enjoy more robust physical health
  • Promote happiness and well-being
  • Reduce lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders
  • Help with coping more effectively with everyday stress
  • Show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress
  • Help protect from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness 

In their article, Emmons and Stern define what gratitude is, and also distinguish between two types of gratitude: worldly and transcendent.

The word “gratitude” comes from the Latin words gratia, or “favor,” and gratus, or “pleasing.” Emmons and Stern point out that “all derivatives from this Latin root have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing. Much of human life is about giving, receiving, and repaying benefits and kindnesses. In this sense, gratitude functions to help regulate relationships by solidifying, affirming, and strengthening them.”

To experience what they call worldly gratitude, individuals must process two crucial pieces of information:

  • They affirm goodness or “good things” in their lives, and
  • They recognize “that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self”

These two pieces, of both affirming and recognizing, help “account for [gratitude’s] transformational healing power in human functioning.” 

joshua-reddekopp-360016-unsplashQuoting Streng, they describe transcendent gratitude as “the attitude [in which] people recognize that they are all connected to each other in a mysterious and miraculous way that is not fully determined by physical forces, but is part of a wider, or transcendent context.” It is the type of gratitude that is recognized by the world's spiritual traditions, they say.

When discussing gratitude and its many benefits, one of the issues that can occur is that people lose this interconnectedness, and the practice of gratitude instead morphs into a self-serving motivation in which one focuses on personally improving, developing, or even becoming more abundant by practicing gratitude, as opposed to building connection with others. In “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” Barbara Ehrenreich points out that while gratitude is prosocial and generally denotes a feeling of indebtedness and thankfulness for what someone else has done, much of the advice in our culture about developing gratitude, such as meditating on things to be grateful for or writing in a gratitude journal, require no interaction with others at all. [2]

Emmons and Stern also recognize this selfish side of gratitude, stating that “the spiritual core of gratefulness is essential if gratitude is to be not simply a tool for self-improvement. True gratefulness rejoices in the other. Its ultimate goal is to reflect back the goodness that one has received by creatively seeking opportunities for giving.” This type of authentic gratitude, they say, counteracts feelings of entitlement and calls for people to openly engage with the world, to feel a sense of wonder and joy that brings forth feelings of connectedness to humanity.

Envy and Gratitude

As mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of gratitude is that it can protect from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein pioneered the idea that understanding envy was essential to understanding love and gratitude, and that envy is in conflict with love and gratitude. Many of her theories were considered controversial, such as the idea that envy is a destructive impulse inborn at birth. [3]

Frank J. Ninivaggi, M.D., F.A.P.A., further developed this concept in his book Envy Theory. [4] He views envy as a major emotional impulse, like love or hate, that is inherent at birth. An infant will experience the “infant’s dilemma,” that is, raw love and excessive idealization of the mother, and at the same time, primary envy, which is the impulse to spoil what is sensed as ideal. In his article “Melting Envy: The Brilliance of Understanding and Gratitude” [5], Ninivaggi explains that “conflict is natural and ordinarily grounded on nonconscious residues of envy, greed, and jealousy. These fundamentally fear-based emotions color our understanding and have been relegated to the back burner of nonattention. Envy darkens attention into nonconsciousness/nonawareness.” In Jungian terms, the envy impulse is part of our shadow, which represents the traits and desires that the ego has found unacceptable and forces us to repress from consciousness.

devin-avery-613632-unsplashNinivaggi points out that envy isn’t just one specific emotion, but has numerous manifestations that contribute to both healthy and pathological personality development. Overt behaviors of unconscious envy are “when one senses another person to be disturbingly intrusive, greedily acquisitive, withholding, and generally unhelpful,” Ninivaggi says. He also says that vandalism, looting, and destruction are all behaviors of envy. “All self-undermining attitudes and behaviors are rooted in unconscious envy. Those prone to anger—irrationally perceiving that they are unfairly treated or that wrongs are done to them unjustly—may have strong, underlying envy. Chronic anger turns to hatred.”

What is necessary, then, is a healthy maturation of envy, to become aware of and to take responsibility and accountability for these inner impulses of envy, of destructiveness and spoiling. By recognizing our impulses and errors toward others as well as ourselves, Ninivaggi says, we develop empathy and compassion, and are able to enjoy love, creativity, and gratitude.

Gratitude and Wholeness: The Path of the Soul

Gratitude is one of the themes, or markers, of what author, mythologist, and storyteller Michael Meade calls the “second adventure” in a recorded talk he presented called "The Path of the Soul." [6] Meade explains that the first adventure is what we now call the “real world,” of daily life and interactions with things, in which we try to solve all problems through economics. In our cultural dialogue, modern mass culture has all but forgotten, and in fact is doing everything it can to work against, the second adventure, which is the idea “that each soul has come here to do something specific and essentially meaningful, not just for the individual, but for the community and the culture.” It is the path of the soul, the path toward wholeness; Jung called it individuation.

val-vesa-436400-unsplashMeade says that when we feel fragmented, we cannot feel gratitude. And conversely, when we feel gratitude, it is an indication that we are experiencing a sense of wholeness, even if momentarily.

“And then it turns out that gratitude is something that can only be expressed when a person feels whole,” Meade says. “People who have a severe psychological split, for instance, can’t be grateful. They cannot manage it. Gratitude occurs in moments of wholeness. So you can turn that two ways: If I’m having trouble being grateful, it means my wholeness has somehow fragmented. I’m out of touch, probably with my soul. On the other hand, if I’m suddenly feeling grateful, then I have found a moment of wholeness, and why not stay in that longer, or witness that longer?”

Those periods when you feel more injured, mistreated, or condemned, rather than grateful, means that you are fragmented, rather than whole. To remedy that, Meade says, “Regardless of what caused it, I have to then find my connection to the hidden wholeness, which Carl Jung called the deep self, but you can also call it the deep soul, self, call it what you want.” 

When you are on this second adventure, and are doing the work to become yourself fully, you also “become available and connected to the great flow of imagination, ideas, and energy,” Meade says. “Nowadays, it also needs to be a little bit of a reminder that the gift of life is still a great thing, even as things are kind of falling apart all around and it seems like one difficult thing is being followed by one more despicable thing. Still, the job of those who are alive is to be grateful for this opportunity to be alive and to figure out what to do with the individual qualities of our own life.”

The Kinship of Gratitude

delfi-de-la-rua-676312-unsplashIn The Book of Awakening [7], spiritual writer, philosopher, and cancer survivor Mark Nepo also draws the connection between gratitude and wholeness. He says that the goal of all experience is to figure out what obstacles are preventing us from being whole. "The things we learn through love and pain reduce our walls and bring our inner and outer life together, and all the while the friction of being alive erodes whatever impediments remain." Nepo says that gratitude is both "the simplest and deepest way to make who we are at one with the world is through the kinship of gratitude. Nothing brings the worlds of spirit and earth together more quickly.” 

And Nepo makes the point that we should consider being grateful not just for the things that we wanted, but also the things that we pridefully wanted and didn't get, because those things could have done us harm. He also speaks of that kind of transcendent gratitude that Emmons and Stern described, that feeling of grace for being alive and having all that we do, and the feeling of connectedness to everything else:   

“Sometimes just giving thanks for the mystery of it all brings everything and everyone closer, the way suction pulls streams of water together. So take a chance and openly give thanks, even if you’re not sure what for, and feel the plenitude of all that is living burns up against your heart.”  








Melissa Ruisz Nazario headshot

Melissa Ruisz Nazario is a graphic designer and social media consultant for Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is also the production manager and webmaster for Immanence Journal. In 2006, Melissa earned an M.A. in English and American Literature at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her thesis, “Parting the Shadowy Veil: Trauma, Testimony, and Shadow in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” received UTEP’s 2006 Honors Convocation Award for Outstanding English Thesis. Melissa has served as a content editor and graphic designer for the U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs Department in Okinawa, Japan, as well as a technical writer and quality assurance specialist for Advanced Computer Learning Company in North Carolina. As an educator, she has taught college-level literature, composition, and drama; she also taught English as a second language to adults and children in Japan. 

Topics: The Psyche, archetypes, transformative, Psychology, soul, depth psychology, mythological, Spiritual, resources